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Travel group ranks Alaska over Las Vegas as most popular domestic destination

by Sean Doogan, December 24, 2014

One travel industry organization says Alaska cruises, for the first time, topped visits to Las Vegas as America’s top domestic vacation.

Travel Leaders Group, which published its 2015 Travel Trends survey  last week, claimed Alaska cruises will account for 33.6 percent of all domestic travel bookings from the 1,226 travel agents and other industry partners it works with, including

Alaska’s tourism numbers have steadily increased by about 3 percent a year since declining in 2009-10 during the economic recession, according to figures from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. In 2013, the last year for which totals are available, tourism ranked as Alaska’s No. 2 private employer, accounting for $3.93 billion in direct economic impact.

Oil and gas remains the state’s most valuable industry. In 2013, oil and gas accounted for as much as $16 billion in annual taxes, royalties, wages, and other spending, according to a 2014 report by the McDowell Group for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

‘Alaska is the real deal’

From October 2012 to September 2013 – last year’s tourism season — nearly 2 million people visited Alaska, according to the Alaska Division of Economic Development.  Of those, 51 percent came to the Last Frontier aboard a cruise ship, according to the report.

Of course, the Travel Leaders’ numbers need scrutiny. The group only surveyed its own network and other travel groups that book through its network. And the survey does not include independent travelers (people who do not book through a website or a travel agent). And then there is this: According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the city walcomed almost 40 million visitors last year, compared to Alaska’s 1.9 million.

Still, the shift in bookings means more domestic dream vacations — ones you book through an agent and plan — are being booked for Alaska next year than for Las Vegas.

“It’s just a desire, generally, when people are traveling, to find something more authentic,” said John Binkley, president of the Cruise Lines International Association in Alaska. “No disrespect to Las Vegas, but it is a facade in the desert, and Alaska is the real deal.”

Binkley claimed Alaska’s increased cruise bookings are a direct result of the Alaska Legislature’s 2010 reduction of a $46 head tax on cruise ship passengers, enacted in 2006, to $34.50. But increased state support for Alaska tourism marketing has also made a difference, Binkley said.

$6 million marketing boost

“In 2010, the governor and the Legislature increased the marketing budget, from about $12 million to $18 million, and they have been consistently doing that (yearly amount of tourism marketing) now over the last four years, and I think that really makes a difference,” Binkley said.

Travel Leaders said the top ranking for Alaska cruises heralds a “seismic shift for American travelers.” Alaska ranked fourth on the Travel Leaders survey last year, behind perennial contender Orlando, Florida (No. 2 this year), Maui, Hawaii (3), New York City (4) and last year’s leader, Las Vegas (5).

“Alaska is vast, so cruising enables one to see so much more of this enormously and stunningly beautiful area. Plus, this type of vacation, which can be perceived as slightly rustic, can be as luxurious as one desires,” Travel Leaders Group CEO Barry Liben said in a statement on the company’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the marketing budget increase figure provided by John Binkley.

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