As the summer tourism season wraps up, Interior operators are already looking to next year – and worrying how they’ll deal with a move by a major industry player.
The Westmark Hotel in Tok is about to shut its doors for another tourism season. But unlike previous years, they won’t open again next May, because Westmark’s owner,Holland America Line, is permanently closing its hotels in Tok and Beaver Creek, in the Yukon.
An owner of a motel in Tok says her business may benefit by gaining customers that would’ve checked-in at the Westmark. But, says Diane Young, co-owner of Young’s Motel, the Westmark’s closure is going to hurt thecommunity’s tourism-dependent economy.
“I mean, it’s going to impact Tok a lot, because that whole complex is closing,” Young said. “That’s a big business for our small community. And I’m sure the same is true with the Westmark in Beaver Creek.”
Holland America officials say the two hotels won’t be needed to accommodate the tourists that the company’s buses bring, because starting next season, Holland America won’t be busing tourists from Fairbanks to Dawson City. Instead, they’ll travel by air.
Company spokesman Erik Elvejord says that’ll enable tourists to spend more time in Fairbanks and Dawson, and less time on the road.
“So, what used to be a two-day motor coach drive of Fairbanks to Tok and then Tok to Dawson City, or the other direction, is now about a two-hour flight with transfers,” Elvejord said.
Young believes Holland America made the change in part due to the often-marginal condition of the rugged Taylor Highway that runs from Tetlin Junction to Dawson City.
But Elvejord says his company’s decision was based on customer feedback.
“We’ve been doing some research with our guests, trying to figure out where to take our product up there, the land-cruise tours, and what people were looking for,” he said. “And we were getting back a lot of research and answers about wanting to spend more time in destinations.”
Elvejord says the change will affect 21 tours around the state. Six of those ran between Fairbanks and Dawson.
He says the company’s new policy reflects what seems to be a growing preference among travelers to Alaska.
“Travelers have evolved,” Elvejord said. “It’s become more of a focus on let’s get there and what can we do when we’re there. And the there has been primarily Dawson and Fairbanks and Denali.”
Elvejord says Holland America will use buses next year to transport tourists on some tours between Fairbanks and Denali National Park that had previously used the Alaska Railroad. The company announced that plan earlier this summer, as part of its efforts to get tourists to their destinations more quickly.
Holland America’s decision has prompted at least one other Interior firm to get out of the tourism business. Officials with Delta Junction-based Whitestone Farms cited Holland America’s move as the main reason that after 27 years Whitestone will pull out of the restaurant and gift-shop concessions at Big Delta State Historical Park.
State Parks Northern Region Area Superintendent Brooks Ludwig says he intends to seek offers from other businesses interested in operating those concessions next year. Ludwig says if he can’t find a suitable concessionaire, he’ll consider operating the businesses with volunteers.