In December, Fred and Janet Vreeman along with partners Gondwana Ecotours announced they had purchased Alaska Grizzly Lodge, a 14-room hotel located at 1470 Westmoreland Ave., around Mile 4.5 of Chena Hot Springs Road. According to a news release, the new owners plan to renovate all of the rooms and add ramps and lifts for accessibility. Significantly, they also plan to expand the lodge’s northern lights viewing area — the release also notes that each of the lodge’s rooms have access to “private or shared aurora viewing decks.”
In an interview with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Fred Vreeman confirmed that the blossoming aurora tourism industry was the primary impetus behind the decision to buy the property.
“We purchased this as a northern lights viewing lodge,” Vreeman said. “The business has grown over the past three years. So, when this lodge came up for sale, we secured it.”
Fred Vreeman has lived in Alaska since 1978 and currently works as Alaska Tour Director for Gondwana, a company that’s been offering aurora tours in Fairbanks since 2013. Vreeman said he and his wife have seen a drastic uptick in business over the past four years. In 2016 they conducted just three tours; last year, they conducted 18, with 12-18 people on each tour.
Their clients stay for seven days, during which time it’s “very rare” that they don’t see the northern lights, according to Vreeman. The Vreemans hire a northern lights guide, who stays up all night and monitors auroral activity. If the lights show up, the guide wakes the guests and remains onhand to assist with photography and offer insight. While the lights are the main draw, Vreeman noted that tour businesses have to offer daytime activities too.
“You have to have more than aurora watch; you need to package it with other local activities,” he said. “We use the local reindeer ranch, the snowmaking is a big draw — we don’t do that with the eco-tours, because it doesn’t really fit until we can have electric snow machines — dog sledding is big, we do curling.”
A burgeoning industry
Offering a full Fairbanks experience is becoming more key as more companies begin offering tours. As director of communications at Explore Fairbanks, this is something that Amy Geiger is well aware of.
“There has been a growing contingent of businesses and entrepreneurs working on all facets of aurora tourism — in addition to winter tourism, so people have things to do during the day as well as at night,” Geiger said. “It’s one of the main things that people come to Fairbanks for.”
The aurora tourism season, according to Geiger, falls roughly around Aug. 21-April 21, when skies are dark enough. According to the 2018 Explore Fairbanks Annual Report, hotel tax collections in 2018 were at record-breaking levels for the fourth consecutive year. While the bulk of hotel tax collections continues to take place during the summer period, the growth has been primarily attributable to thriving winter tourism. As an illustration: in 2008, winter collections accounted for 26% of the total tax collections; in 2017, winter accounted for 38% of the total collections. In 2017, winter collections broke the $2 million mark for the first time.
The last time Explore Fairbanks conducted a winter season study was over 2011/2012. As such, the increase in numbers of tourists and businesses dedicated to aurora viewing specifically is not readily available. Geiger, however, was unequivocal in stating that aurora tourism is on the rise.
“Anecdotally, there has been significant growth and there’s a lot of new businesses in general,” she said, before name-checking a stream of companies including Borealis Basecamp, Aurora Villa, and Taste of Alaska, which has also recently expanded its aurora viewing site. “There was such a strong pull that Explore Fairbanks installed an aurora tracker on our website, which provides real time data as well as a forecast,” she said.
An aurora hot spot
There are a number of reasons why Fairbanks is a prime location for aurora tourism to grow. Geiger pointed out that the city offers visitors comfortable lodging and amenities, as well as easy opportunities to head out into the wild, where the lights are more visible.
“We are the base camp for aurora viewing. And then there’s vantage points in basically every direction,” she said. “In one direction you can go to Cleary Summit, in another direction you can go to North Pole, in another you go down Chena Hot Springs Road.”
And there are other geographical advantages that Fairbanks boasts. Explore Fairbanks’ Director of Tourism Scott McCrea said that the area’s topographical attributes and climate arguably place it above other aurora destinations.
“We’re competing with some pretty high profile Northern European countries, like Iceland and Finland. We’re a town in a state within a country, going up against whole countries,” he said. “But we’re so far from the coast. We get those nights of really clear skies, as opposed to those countries which maybe tend to get more cloud coverage.”
Vreeman sees the growth of the industry in Fairbanks as a result of a few different things — primarily an increase in companies investing in infrastructure.
“I think it’s a bucket list thing. Most people want to see the northern lights,” he said, before adding, “I think the reason that it’s really picked up in the past few years is we’ve made it accessible.”
The Asian market
In Fairbanks aurora tourism can be divided into several distinct types of service: touring companies, lodges, photographers who offer assistance with capturing the lights in camera. But in a more fundamental way, there are essentially two different markets.
“You’ve got these two groups of worldwide travelers who are very interested,” Vreeman said. “You have companies catering to the Asian market. This particular company (Gondwana Ecotours) caters to Western and European market.”
Vreeman explained that a decade ago the bulk of the aurora tourists were coming from Japan. Scott McCrea, who’s spent 33 winter in Fairbanks, argues that tourists from Japan were the pioneers of aurora tourism in Fairbanks.
“Japan really ushered in Aurora Tourism and winter tourism for Fairbanks,” he said. “It’s been a solid market for us going back many years now — at least a couple of decades. What that eventually led to is they started doing direct charters from Japan to Fairbanks over the winter season.”
This spiked over the winter of 2014/2015, during that season 18 charter flights that came from Tokyo directly to Fairbanks, according to McCrea. While the number of charter flights has decreased in recent years, those tourists remain an important part of the market. And McCrea said that 2014 saw another significant development, which has resulted in a “rapidly growing” number of Chinese tourists coming to Fairbanks.
“That comes down to the fact that, back in 2014, there was a change in the visa program,” McCrea said.
It used to be that a Chinese resident could only apply for a tourist visa for the U.S. that lasted one year; since 2014, U.S. tourist visas are valid for 10 years. McCrea noted that aurora season coincides with various holidays — notably, Chinese New Year — which may have also driven up visitor numbers. Beyond that, a booming Chinese economy has seen the country’s middle and upper classes growing. This new-found affluence means that many Chinese students who attend college in the Lower 48 have the financial freedom to explore — and this has been a boon to Fairbanks.
“About four years ago, we started seeing this: in the month of March, Fairbanks became their big spring break destination,” McCrea said. “They wanted to see the Northern Lights, but they also wanted to have that real Alasakan experience — dog sledding and the hot springs … They put a high value on travel, in terms of life experiences.”
One company that’s taken advantage of this growing market is Alaska Skylar Travel, one of a number of aurora tour businesses that employ Mandarin-speaking guides.
“It’s been really tremendous growth. 2014 was actually the first year of our operation in its present organization — since then we’ve seen our numbers increase tenfold,” said Business Development Manager Glen Hemingson. “We only represent a small portion of the total market of inbound Mandarin-speaking visitors.”
According to Hemingson, the owners of Skylar Travel are originally from Beijing and, while the company offers a range of different guided activities, aurora viewing was what spurred the creation of the firm.
Hemingson said that the 2014 change to the visa system has been a boon not just to Fairbanks, but to Interior Alaska in general. He pointed out that this is among the reasons that the National Park Service is developing a Winter and Shoulder Season Plan at Denali.
He also corroborated McCrea’s comments on the increase in numbers of Chinese students visiting Fairbanks, calling them “a substantial part of our winter business in Fairbanks.”
“Really a tremendous amount of our visitor numbers come out of the Lower 48. It’s not just mainland Chinese and Taiwanese visitors,” Hemingson said.
While he noted that fewer than half of the company’s total visitors number arrive from China, catering to Mandarin speakers is a focus for Skylar Travel.
“For multi-generational groups and for students, to experience Alaska with a Mandarin-speaking guide, it’s a much richer experience for them,” he said, adding, “We’re having a good winter so far.”