Summer visitors — sooner or later, it’s a virtual certainty you’ll run into them. The summer solstice weekend marks the height both of daylight hours and tourism numbers around the Interior, as thousands from outside Alaska and the U.S. take in the midnight sun. As climate patterns shift and the state grapples with a budget in which oil is receding as a funding mechanism, the role of tourism in Alaska is likely to grow. The Interior has long had a reputation for displaying true Alaska spirit in greeting visitors; as residents share the solstice weekend with many of them, let’s be gracious hosts.
The Interior has long been a popular tourist destination. Though some visitors to the state don’t venture north of Cook Inlet, the many who do are amply rewarded for making the journey. Denali National Park near Healy is rife with natural wonders in landscapes and members of the animal kingdom. The Tanana Valley offers near-24-hour sun and warmth in the summers and brilliant displays of the aurora borealis in winter.
Accordingly, tourism has always played a major role in the local economy and the lives of Interior residents. Many Fairbanksans who grew up in town had their first job — and sometimes their first several jobs — working in the tour industry in the summer. Cleaning motor coaches for Holland America Princess, working at the front counter of a local hotel or swabbing the deck on the Riverboat Discovery serves as a résumé builder and source of funds for local young people during the warmer months.
Statewide, tourism is a major industry, even if it doesn’t contribute to Alaska’s bottom line in the same manner as oil and gas. According to figures released by the McDowell Group in late 2014, last year 1.93 million visitors — close to three times the state’s population — came to see Alaska. Those visitors spent $1.8 billion here and provided for $1.3 billion in labor income via tourism-related jobs for Alaskans. The overall economic impact of the industry rang in at a whopping $3.9 billion. It also provided $174 million in state taxes and fees, only a small part of the roughly $10 billion in total general fund revenue for the state, but a sum roughly equivalent to what a proposed statewide sales tax would bring in. Should that sales tax be implemented, it would increase the visitor industry’s contribution to the state, as visitor spending would provide an outside infusion of revenue on top of the share borne by residents.
While there are plenty of good economic arguments to be kind to tourists as they visit, the one that matters most doesn’t have much to do with the economy at all: It’s just what we do. Many of us who choose to live here like the Interior’s friendly and welcoming nature, a community character trait in increasingly short supply even within the state.
Visitors, many of whom have become accustomed to the loss of that fundamental good-naturedness and willingness to go out of one’s way to say hello or help others, notice this far more than we who live here.
So be good-natured if someone asks directions to the University of Alaska Museum of the North, restaurant recommendations downtown during the Midnight Sun Festival or needs help deciding what to do with a free afternoon in town. It’s what we’d want if we were in a similar position on our own vacations, and it’s something visitors will remember and take with them as a memory of their visit to the Interior. Word of mouth, after all, is the best advertising.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,