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Milestones and Transitions: Alaska Ecotourism Conference

One of the many views of the gorgeous Alaskan wilderness from the conference site
One of the many views of the gorgeous Alaskan wilderness from the conference site
Pamela Lanier

The Alaskan Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association brought together Alaskans involved with conservation through tourism from all over the state. The 22nd annual Eco-tourism conference reinforced the paramount importance of nature in the Alaska experience and the local economy "proving undisturbed nature is a business asset shared by residents and visitors alike," said AWRTA executive director Eric Downey. This conference marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and commemorates 25 years since the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil in the pristine waters of the Prince William Sound which spotlighted conservation issues. In attendance were wilderness dependent tourism businesses-from eco-lodges to kayak guides, non-profits and Alaska Geographic, delegates from Alaska travel industry association BLM, park service, land managers, state fish, wildlife professors, and students from the University of Alaska, Alaska Pacific University, and the Wilderness Society.

The opening keynote was delivered by Doug Scott as a well-known wilderness advocate and conservation lobbyist who discussed the establishment of over 100 million acres of parks and monuments in the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act including the Wrangell St Elias National Park and Preserve (which abuts the Canadian Kluane National Park-together they constitute the largest protected terrestrial area on the planet.)

Chez Chesak of the Adventure Travel Trade association discussed the results of their 2013 adventure travel survey which showed adventure travel has grown exponentially in recent years and now comprises a major segment of the overall leisure especially involving travelers form Europe, North and South America travel and fueled by the increasing use of social media in trip planning.

A big focus of the conference was the initiative to involve youth in succession planning for local businesses and the future of ecotourism and the innovative Alaskan educational initiatives. One of the disturbing facts which came to light is that wolf sightings have been reduced 90% in the past three years in Denali National Park largely due to state initiated aerial slaughter of wolves to increase moose hunting opportunities, including hunting the Toklat river pack which is the longest continuously studied group of animals in North America and have been almost decimated by this policy.

Pamela Lanier gave the keynote on the second day and discussed in depth "What works in Ecotourism Marketing Today" with a special focus on global word of mouth opportunities in social networking, and innovative offerings that bring in eco-travelers. Tourism in Alaska is one of the top three revenue generators and one in nine jobs are in the industry. Alaska has a big tourism promotion budget -$18.7 million which generates $3.9 billion in receipts ($78 million of which accrues to the state and muni governments in taxes) from an expected 1.7 million guests in 2014. The USGS estimated that Alaska's National Parks alone generated $237 million in 2011.