Changes on horizon for aurora tourism in Fairbanks

ANCHORAGE — Each winter, signs go up around the city of Fairbanks welcoming visitors in Japanese. But the local tourism and visitors bureau, in anticipation of major changes to winter airline schedules from Asia, is drafting new signs that say “welcome” in six languages: German, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.

Fairbanks has a long-standing reputation as a bucket-list destination for Japanese travelers eager to see the aurora borealis dance across the northern sky. That demand has been met in large part by Japan Airlines, whose winter charters to the Interior city serve airports across Japan.

But pilot shortages and fleet cuts have forced Japan Airlines to pare down its Fairbanks charter offerings, as it did in Anchorage this summer. Two seasons ago, Japan Airlines scheduled 18 round-trip flights between Japan and Fairbanks. Last year it scheduled nine. This season there are two, according to Deb Hickok, president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks, the tourism and visitors bureau.

That means the deep desire of Japanese visitors to make the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to see the northern lights could be tempered by the prospect of a much longer journey involving connections through the West Coast or Canada.

Mok Kumagai, part-owner of Aurora Borealis Lodge, a property operated expressly for viewing the northern lights, already sees signs that Japanese tourists won’t be as numerous. By September he normally has several winter bookings for large tours from Japan, but so far no major group reservations are lined up for the season.

“We’re kind of expecting a downturn in volume,” he said. “Normally by now, the winter JAL schedule has been announced and the local booking companies have us blocked off.”

But there are strong indications that the aurora travel market is shifting, not dying. China Airlines recently announced it will fly its first winter charters to Fairbanks, with three flights in December from Taiwan. Delta Air Lines plans to serve Fairbanks through the winter from Seattle for the first time with one daily round-trip flight.

The three Taiwan flights sold out in two weeks, said Michel Lo, acting vice president for China Airlines in Taipei. By flying nonstop, passengers will reach Fairbanks in nine hours, as opposed to an itinerary that would take double the time via the company’s direct flight to Vancouver.

Aside from changing its “welcome” signs, Explore Fairbanks is printing more information for tour operators in Mandarin and plans to put forth a proposal to its board to finance a China-targeted marketing campaign, Hickok said.

“I’m really thrilled to see other carriers coming in to fill some of the void,” said Jesse Carlstrom, tourism marketing manager for the state. “There’s still a demand for Alaska winter tours specifically to see the aurora and to see the interest from Taiwan is fantastic.”

Carlstrom said there’s progress being made on attracting additional charter flights from Asia to Fairbanks on other airlines this winter. And the Delta flights have the potential to bring in more domestic travelers and foreign visitors from beyond East Asia.

Those flights from Seattle have Kumagai optimistic that the downturn in Japanese visitors could well be offset by bookings by other tourists.

“JAL was a great market for us, but when volume went down last season, we found we were able to get more independents that we used to have to turn away, mostly from the Lower 48, including Chinese students studying in the U.S.,” he said.

Other tour operators are ready to welcome the new influx of Taiwanese guests. Ralf Dobrovolny, owner of 1st Alaska Outdoor School, already has a fully functioning website in Chinese. He is from Germany and his wife is from Taiwan and the two see an opportunity to grow their business. He plans to attend marketing events in Taiwan and Beijing in the coming months.

“The Chinese market is only a portion of what we are doing, but absolutely we are trying hard to capture that market,” Dobrovolny said.

Victor Fang, general manager of the Anchorage branch of China Airlines, said the Fairbanks charters will serve as a trial for a new destination that could be marketed throughout China.

“If we succeed this year, definitely we will push on to attract other customers in the greater China region, including mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau,” Fang said.

Tour operators are marketing the northern lights with the Chinese slogan “xin fu ji guang.” Roughly translated, it means the northern lights will bring whoever views them happiness, blessings and deep satisfaction with life.

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