Anchorage (CNN) — "Everyone is going to Alaska this summer," declares the woman sitting next to me on a flight from San Francisco to Anchorage. "When I told friends we were going, so many of them said, 'So are we!'"
There were times during my recent 10-day visit to the Last Frontier when that definitely seemed to be the case. And there's no doubt that a lot more people are vacationing in Alaska this summer than at any point since the pandemic began.
In Anchorage, I had to wait more than an hour for a table at a breakfast spot popular with tourists. The waits weren't so dire at other places around the state but restaurants were humming, almost every table taken.
None of the traditional rental car companies had vehicles, part of a well-publicized nationwide shortage. But I was able to snatch a Volkswagen SUV through the local branch of Turo, an online vehicle-sharing marketplace that's basically a transportation equivalent to Airbnb.
When my day trip to view grizzly bears and other wildlife at Lake Clark National Park & Preserve was canceled because of bad weather, I was told it wouldn't be possible to reschedule for more than a month because the flights are suddenly so popular again.
Tourists at Denali National Park gather at Eielson Visitor Center.
"We've been slammed since we reopened in May," explains my server at the McKinley View Lodge restaurant near Denali National Park. "We're expecting the whole summer to be super-busy even without the big tour buses that bring cruise ship passengers up here."
Denali's renowned adventure road tours were running at nearly full capacity the day that I hopped aboard one of the vintage school buses for a drive along the park's only road for a close-up look at grizzly bears, caribou, moose and other iconic Alaskan wildlife.
"It's definitely not as doom and gloom as we thought it would be," says Teri Hendricks of Visit Anchorage. "Our marketing to independent travelers in the rest of the country -- rather than international visitors or potential cruise ship passengers -- has been pretty successful."
Because Alaska's such a huge state, you can easily escape to a place where you're the only one along a secluded beach or wilderness trail, with plenty of empty, wide-open spaces to explore. Places like the Matanuska Valley with its namesake glacier and the Knik River Valley in the Chugach mountains that offer the full-on Alaska outdoor adventure experience with a huge dose of solitude.
A young grizzly bear crosses the main park road in Denali.
The degree of bounce-back seemed to catch much of Alaska tourism by surprise. After the slowest year in living memory, many enterprises just weren't ready for full capacity and are still struggling to staff up.
"When I started applying for jobs here last December," says helicopter pilot Warren Foster, who flies tours that land on Knik Glacier, "there was nothing available. No bookings, no tourists, no helicopter tours, no need for pilots. But then by April, I was getting callbacks from all over. It went from zero to like a thousand miles per hour crazy fast."
Alyeska Resort in Girdwood was also surprised by the rebound. "If you asked me back in April how things were going to pan out, I would have said it was going to be a good but not a great summer," says Ben Napolitano, marketing director of Alaska's largest outdoor sports resort. "A lot of people in the rest of the country were looking for something to do this summer and we seem to be on their radar."
"We started getting bookings for this summer in January and February," says Mandy Vestal of MICA guide and Alpenglow Luxury Camping in the Matanuska Valley. "But then in the spring it started to triple and quadruple -- record bookings. We literally can't do any more trips the rest of this summer and we're turning people away. Right now, there's a 50-night waiting list just for the camping."
There was no shortage of passengers aboard Alaska Railroad's Coastal Classic Train from Anchorage to Seward.
While rental cars are nearly impossible to find, visitors are dealing with the transportation shortage by hopping planes, trains, buses and more.
Alaska Airlines has flights to 20 cities around the state including more offbeat tourist destinations like Barrow, Dillingham and Yakutat. Three different motor coach lines offer service between major cities and national parks.
The Alaska Railroad runs passenger trains to popular destinations like Denali, Fairbanks, Seward, Whittier and Talkeetna. And along the coast, Alaska Marine Highway ferries offer passengers service to more than two dozen destinations from the Aleutian archipelago and Kodiak Island to the Inside Passage.
Sightseeing is made easy aboard the Coastal Classic.
Cruises slowly starting again
While some Alaska destinations have reported record bookings, that's not the case throughout the state.
Places like Tok and Delta Junction that serve road trippers arriving via the Alaska Highway are still hurting because Canada remains closed to US leisure travelers. The number of visitors arriving by road fell by 93% last year, but the recent announcement that Canada will lift some border restrictions on August 9 is expected to help revitalize traffic along the Alaska Highway.
That precipitous drop in traffic pales in comparison to southeast Alaska, where the cruise industry has long been the major source of jobs and income. Prior to the pandemic, more than half of the state's tourist arrivals (around 1.33 million in 2019) arrived aboard cruise ships.
But a pandemic-inspired ban on foreign-registered cruise ships -- together with mass passenger cancellations -- sent Alaska cruising into a tailspin.
According to Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), only one locally registered cruise ship continued itineraries along the Alaska coast last year. She adds that "99.9% of our cruise itineraries were canceled in 2020."
"If you put all of your eggs in one basket and depended on cruises, you got slammed," says Casey Ressler of the Mat-Su region tourist board in south-central Alaska.
A sightseeing ship passes alongside Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.
The entire state felt the economic and employment shock. But cruise-tourism-dependent communities were especially hard hit. According to figures supplied by the state government, the number of jobs and wages in Skagway fell by around 50% each. Haines and Whittier were also hard hit.
But things are looking up. Small ship cruises that are domestically flagged have been operating along the Alaska coast for most of the 2021 summer season. And when Royal Caribbean's 2,476-passenger Serenade of the Seas docked in Sitka on July 21, it was the first large cruise ship carrying paying passengers to visit an Alaskan port in nearly two years.
Although Canada's cruise ship ban is set to last at least through November, passage of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act on May 24 allows for the direct passage of cruise ships from Washington State to southeast Alaska without stopping at a Canadian port as previously required.
"The cruise companies tell me that 2022 is going to be a banner year for Alaska cruising based on reservations and rebookings from 2020 and 2021," says Leonard. Still, based on industry projections, the number of ships and passengers calling on Alaska won't totally rebound until 2023 or 2024.
Denali's renowned adventure road tours were running at nearly full capacity on this day.
Thinking outside the box
How did Alaska tourism make it through last year? A combination of cutbacks, flexibility, appealing to the local market and thinking outside the box. "Some businesses didn't survive," says Hendricks. "But those that did got creative."
Salmon Berry Travel & Tours, which normally organizes shore excursions for cruise passengers, decided to diversify into the delivery business. "We started to deliver all sorts of things," says Salmon Berry site manager Bailey Larousse. "Christmas trees, bulk food orders, animal feed, groceries to food banks."
Instead of guiding cruise passengers on culinary expeditions of the state capital, Midge Moore of Juneau Food Tours diversified into Taste of Alaska subscription boxes that offer a virtual tour of the 49th state via the "sights, sounds, smells, and flavors" featured in each delivery.
Vestel, with the guiding and glamping businesses, decided that 2020 was a great time to invest in new luxury tents and tweak the outdoor adventure offerings. "I took a chance adding more tents because we had no idea if we were going to get back to normal this year or not," she explains. "But it worked out. We're pretty much full the rest of the summer."
And a lot of Alaskans booked guided trips to ice climb or walk on glaciers. "People wanted to social distance and we're perfect for that. We also learned a lot of things last year -- like the fact that people wanted more private guiding or family groups, so even after Covid we'll be offering a lot more of that."
Resilience was a lifesaver last year, says Ressler, of the Mat-Su region tourist board.
"People in Alaska tourism realized that you don't have to do things the same old way. They realized that you can change, you can make it better. It was like a reset button. But it wasn't easy getting to this point," he laughs.