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Alaska Tourism Officials Travel to India and South America To Court Visitors

Jan 12, 2014 4:00 pm

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Alaska is aggressively opening up new in-bound markets, with an assist from airlines that are making success all-the-more possible.

— Dennis Schaal

Free Report: The Changing Business of Extended-Stay Hotels

/Mark Thiessen  / Associated Press

In this photo taken July 4, 2013, in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska, is a brown bear walking behind the Brooks Falls viewing area. /Mark Thiessen / Associated Press


Armed with the allure of vast openness and pristine wildlife, Alaska’s tourism industry regularly courts potential visitors in the more densely-populated parts of the world.

Two of the hottest up-and-coming markets? India and South America, according to Alaska tourism officials.

In 2012, Visit Anchorage, the municipality’s tourism bureau, spearheaded sales trips to cities in both regions. Those trips, targeted at tour operators, travel agents and media, continued last year, in partnership with Alaska Airlines and the state tourism marketing program.

The most recent, which took place from Dec. 11 to 16, toured Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore, said Marsha Barton, who has gone on the India trips as a tourism sales manager at Visit Anchorage.

In October, a tourism sales team visited Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Future itineraries will likely extend to Santiago, Chile, and organizers also see growth potential in Central America, specifically Mexico, said Tania Hancock, a tourism sales manager with Visit Anchorage who was present on the South America trips.

“Alaska is much newer to South America as far as a destination,” said David Kasser, vice president of tourism and sales at Visit Anchorage. “It’s more established in India, but established in India as a cruise market.”

The ramped-up marketing effort comes at a time of diversifying airline connections and shifting sources of visitors to the state.

International visitors make up about 10 percent of Alaska’s tourists, led by Australians and New Zealanders, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The statistic excludes Canadians, who are counted as domestic visitors.

Here’s a breakdown of the top five tourist home countries:

  1. Australia/New Zealand
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Germany/Austria/Switzerland
  4. Japan
  5. Korea

A handful of less-established secondary markets are emerging as well, such as China and Taiwan, said Jesse Carlstrom, a development specialist with the Alaska Tourism Marketing Program.

Several years ago, formal efforts launched to capitalize on what industry watchers saw as untapped potential India and South America. The U.S. Travel Association predicts over the next few years a 5 to 6 percent increase in the number of travelers from India to the U.S., said Jack Bonney, spokesman for Visit Anchorage.

In 2011, Alaska Airlines saw a 70 percent increase in revenue from India passengers flying on the airline, said Susan MacKenzie, manager of charter, group and international sales at Alaska Airlines. That growth has leveled out in the past two years, 5 percent in 2012 and 10 percent in 2013, she said.

Anecdotally, the state tourism marketing agency heard several years ago that businesses and tour operators were seeing an increase in Indian visitors, Carlstrom said. And before that, in the early 2000s, Kasser, while working cruise line security at the Port of Seward, recalled seeing hundreds of Indians aboard the ships, mostly large families.

That demographic has shifted in recent years, increasingly to smaller groups, couples and younger professionals traveling independently, he said.

While on the sales trips in India, Barton said she most often fielded questions about food, and vegetarian dietary restrictions.

“Can we bring our own chef?” she recalled one tour operator asking. Hotels in Alaska, aware of that demand, are looking at developing specialized menu options, Barton said.

MacKenzie, meanwhile, earned a round of applause at a couple of the events in India after announcing the airline’s baggage delivery guarantee policy.

“They thought that was fantastic,” she said.

Better airline connections have bolstered efforts to expand Alaska’s marketing push. Dubai-based airline Emirates, which serves more than a dozen cities in India, now flies daily into Seattle, MacKenzie said.

Meanwhile, American Airlines has introduced a direct service from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Los Angeles, reducing the travel time north, Hancock said.

Where growth in the Indian market has stayed steady, according to Alaska Airlines data, political and economic issues have led to fluctuating numbers from South American countries. Currency issues in Brazil last year, for example, contributed toward a 12 percent decline in revenue, MacKenzie said.

“It has not grown the way we thought it was going to,” she said. Overall, growth from South America was down 6 percent this year, she said.

But tourism agencies in Anchorage see strong future potential in the Latin America region, both the southern and central regions, fueled by a growing fascination with the Alaskan lifestyle and images in the media.

“Much as I hate to bring up her name, the real turning point for Latin America was Sarah Palin,” Kasser said. “She just put Alaska on the radar for them.”

Reality television programs, too, seem to be fostering a fascination with the more extreme aspects of the Alaskan lifestyle, Hancock said. Episodes of shows such as “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers” are just beginning to air in Latin America, she said.

At first, Hancock was unsure if the shows would help or hurt Alaskan tourism. She’s since changed her mind.

“We learned there is no such thing as bad PR,” Hancock said. “It’s driving consumers in ways we’ve never seen before.”

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