ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Don't say "winter" to Deb Hickok.
The Explore Fairbanks CEO is not in denial of the chilling temperatures and dark mornings yet to come. Rather, in the style of any good marketer, she will tell you the Golden Heart City has two seasons: summer and aurora.
"The aurora is really the big thing in Fairbanks," Hickok said.
It's hard to argue with her stance.
About a 30-minute drive north of Fairbanks just off the Steese Highway is Aurora Borealis Lodge, one of a select few accommodations in Alaska that is closed during summer.
Aurora Borealis Lodge opens Aug. 16 each year and shutters — for the summer — April 12.
"Basically, we designed our season around when we have darkness," lodge co-owner Mok Kumagai said.
Kumagai's foray into aurora-centric tourism began in 2003 as a tour operator out of Fairbanks. That year he was open for two months and served about 100 customers, he said. By 2008, demand had grown enough for Kumagai and his business partner Logan Ricketts to open the lodge, which can host up to 35 guests.
"All of a sudden there was an increased demand for places that could hold 30 or so people at a time," Kumagai said.
That roughly coincides with Japan Airlines' first winter, err, aurora, charter flights direct from the island country. The first three aurora charters from Japan flew in 2004. By 2007, Japan Airlines had dedicated 16 flights to Fairbanks for aurora spotters. The non-summer charters peaked in 2011 with 19 flights.
Most charter itineraries include at least five nights in Fairbanks, giving guests a fair shot to find clear skies.
Those guests are spending money, too. The average Outside traveler to Alaska spends about $950 once in the state; international travelers shell out more than $1,600; and Japanese travelers eclipse $2,000, according to the state Commerce Department.
In recent years, Kumagai has had upward of 5,000 aurora tour customers in addition to a full lodge most of the season.
This aurora season Japan Airlines has only three charters scheduled — a consequence of reorganization within the airline after it filed for bankruptcy — not for lack of demand, Hickok said.
Those travelers that would have taken the charter will simply have to find another way to Alaska.
Explore Fairbanks lists 15 lodges and tour companies offering customers a chance to see Alaska's renowned northern lights. Many of those businesses have opened — or decided to stay open in winter — within the last 10 years.
In the first few years of the business virtually all of Kumagai's customers were Japanese. Being a native of Japan himself, he has a theory as to why aurora viewing is such a popular vacation theme among his brethren, and it's not a popular myth about the mystical powers of the aurora.
"You may have heard that it brings good luck to conceive a child under the northern lights; that's completely wrong by the way," Kumagai clarified. "It's really a fascination with nature (among Japanese tourists). It's similar to wanting to go see Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone or Machu Picchu in Peru — this fascination with the wonders of the world, the aurora being one of them."
Rather than sitcoms or dramas, Kumagai said travel shows were the primetime must-watch television in Japan when he was growing up, which exemplifies the urge to see the world in the country.
Ralf Dobrovolny opened 1st Alaska Outdoor School in Fairbanks in 2003. A year-round excursion provider, 1st Alaska offers Denali and Arctic adventures in the summer and mushing and aurora viewing the rest of the year. Once a niche to go along with summer business, Dobrovolny said the aurora season now makes up about 70 percent of his annual business activity.
Northern Alaska Tour Co. has offered a suite of Arctic trips for 25 years. Co-owner Matt Atkinson said Northern Alaska began its aurora tours 10 years ago and "the last five to six years it's just been gaining momentum."
The aurora's popularity is evidenced by the distinct terms that have been generated to describe it.
At Northern Alaska Tour Co. there are aurora viewers, those that are actively taking in the northern lights. Aurora watchers are on guard for the slightest light activity and aurora hunters or chasers are those traversing Alaska to find a break in the nighttime clouds.
While the Japanese may have been the first on the Alaska aurora bandwagon, they aren't the only group on it anymore.
The first China Airlines aurora charter, direct from Taiwan, was scheduled to land in Fairbanks Dec. 4. It is the first of three charters the carrier has planned to Fairbanks before the end of the year, and they all sold out, Hickok said.
Chinese students going to college in the U.S. are a subsection of the aurora visitor market Atkinson said has caught him by surprise over the last couple years.
"These kids are wired; they're going on Weibo, which is basically Chinese Twitter. Then there's Trip Advisor and these things so they're very connected," Atkinson said.
He hopes that technological connectivity will help cultivate the concept of aurora viewing in Alaska across China through good old word of mouth.
"I am convinced that in the next few years we will see a huge impact on our winter business — on winter tourism — from the Chinese market," Dobrovolny said.
The European market is also starting to catch on, Dobrovolny added.
He just better not let Hickok hear him using the "W'' word.
Information from: (Anchorage) Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com