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'Last Frontier' Image Pulls Growing Crowd Of Tourists to Alaska

WITH jagged peaks and blue glaciers towering above him, a camera at his side, and a small, well-traveled dog sleeping at his feet, Andy Heber sat in the sun outside the Chugach State Park visitors' center making journal notes about what he said had been a satisfying two-month tour of Alaska.Mr. Heber - from Zurich, Switzerland - said Alaska is the only place where ordinary people can easily walk onto glaciers; where visitors can land at a major international airport and spot cavorting moose; where wilderness is accessible within minutes from a city of a quarter of a million people. Heber is one of a record number of tourists who have flocked north this summer, drawn by magnificent vistas, frolicking wildlife, and, in some cases, fears that man will soon trash one of the world's last unspoiled regions. The Alaska Division of Tourism expects this summer's tourist visits to exceed by 10 percent last summer's record of 630,000, says Pete Carlson, development specialist for the division. Domestic traffic through Anchorage International Airport is up 11.4 percent from last year, airport officials report. Saddam Hussein gets some of the credit for this year's tourist crowds. Many Americans made their travel plans during the height of the Gulf war, when Saddam's calls for attacks on United States interests made Alaska appear among the safest of the exotic vacation destinations. The war prompted cruise companies to divert four large ships from the Mediterranean to Alaska, raising tourist carrying capacity by about 800 a week. Juneau, a stop in the scenic Inside Passage, has seen a 15 percent tourism jump since last summer, officials there say. Alaska tourism also benefits from the world's growing environmental consciousness - fed in large part by Alaska's 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, industry specialists say. Ecology-minded tourists want to see America's last frontier before it is gone, they say. "There is a perceived fear that if people don't get up and see Alaska now, they'll never get up here to see it before it's ruined," said Tom Garrett, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau. Promoting tourism is as patriotic here as waving the state's Big Dipper flag. But tourism boosters are torn between proposals that would develop more facilities and those that would preserve the rustic wilderness that draws tourists in the first place. In name of tourism, environmentalists have angered developers by seeking to block logging and other activities. In the name of tourism, the administration of Gov. Walter Hickel (I) has horrified environmentalists by seeking to cut new roads through Denali National Park and other protected areas. Some claim the industry, listed by a new Alaska Division of Tourism study as the state's No. 2 nongovernmental employer, has plateaued. Without an expanded season, more places to put tourists, and more transportation links to lucrative Asian and European markets, the industry can grow only marginally, they say. Although Anchorage's hotel capacity has grown by 300 rooms in the past year, companies find it hard to justify expensive new buildings that will be full only one season of the year. Nearly three-fourths of Alaska's visitors come here between June and September; winter tourism in Alaska is a hard sell. One company that is banking on winter is Seibu Alaska Inc., the local unit of the giant Japanese Seibu Group. Owner of the Alyeska ski resort, Seibu is spending $70 million on a luxury hotel and mountain improvements to cater to big-spending Japanese skiers. Seibu is also eyeing an eventual expansion to an adjacent mountain that offers potential for some of North America's biggest vertical drops and longest ski seasons. But big tourism developments offend many Alaskans. In Talkeetna, a hamlet in Mt. McKinley's shadow, residents this month presented petitions and staged a rally to protest a large Denali National Park visitors' center proposed for their tiny town.

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