How Do Pensioners Keep the Alaskan Tourism Industry Afloat?

DENALI, ALASKA- Oftentimes folks visit a new place with a curious lack of knowledge about where they're going, as was the case with the man that pointed across the street at Cleft Mountain and asked me, with a straight face, whether or not that was Denali. No, I replied. I'm not sure what you are pointing to, but I can assure you that it's not Denali. Of course, he didn’t think it was, he just figured he might as well ask…



For the record, Cleft Mountain (to the right) is about 6,000 feet high, while Denali is 20,320 feet high.


As a front-of-house employee, I find myself the target of numerous queries like these, both absurd and legitimate. One of the more common questions is whether or not there are any bears on the property. The answer, quite succinctly, is that yes, there are bears around and you would do quite well to observe all precautions against coming into contact with one. Keep your food locked up, at all times…they are attracted to the scent. If you see a bear…don’t approach it, but don’t run away either. Slowly back away, and never get between a mother and her cubs. If the bear charges you, stand your ground. Never run away. They are known to “bluff charge”, a tactic that will surely leave you terrified, but likely intact: running towards you at full speed, baring their teeth and assuming an aggressive posture, but backing off within ten feet or so. It’s fun business describing these precautions in excruciating detail to folks who fully expect your answer to be that no, there are no bears around, and there is nothing to worry about. While most visitors to the park are coddled day, night, and every juncture in between, it adds a certain visceral element to their experience to know that there could be a bear outside their cabin.


It is quite a conundrum when folks come to me and ask, well, what can I do in Denali? Everyone comes here to see nature. But very few people want to actually expose themselves to any sort of elements when they arrive, since by and large it is pensioners and elderly folks that fuel the tourism industry in Alaska. Alaska is a place that is expensive to visit, plain and simple. You’d be hard-pressed to find many twenty-somethings with the disposable income and wherewithal to plan a holiday in Alaska. The younger people that come here are either working their way through the summer, like me, or are the hardy, adventurous types spending weeks backpacking through the park and cooking their own meals on camping stoves.


It is the pensioners that come with money to spend. Alaska is a destination reserved for the wealthy, but the wealthy do not always translate into being willing and able to do things outside of their comfort zone. Thus, bus trips into the park are a money-maker for the tourism industry: they have a stranglehold on the only way to really, truly see the park for the people that have paid lots of money to come up here and do just that. While not exactly the full-on Alaskan experience they might talk about upon returning home, I'm in favor of it since it gives me the opportunity to spend my summer in a place that I might not have the opportunity to visit otherwise. It is their dollars that allow many people to live and work here.