Alaska birdwatching is a big money-maker and presents opportunities for rural areas, study says

A tufted puffin swims near Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Many birdwatchers come to coastal Alaska locations to view these colorful seabirds. (Photo by Sarah Schoen/USGS Alaska Science Center)

by Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon
July 14, 2022

Alaska is a haven for birds – and for the people who love to watch them.

Now a study has put a dollar figure to all that bird viewing. Birders traveling to Alaska spent about $378 million in 2016, supporting about 4,300 jobs, totals similar to those for the state’s mining and telecommunications industries, said the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Nearly 300,000 – or about one-sixth – of the people who visited Alaska that year said they participated in bird watching, according to the study by Tobias Schwoerer of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Natalie Dawson of the National Audubon Society. The study relies on state tourism data, industry data and a myriad of bird-watching reports. Material for the study includes a report commissioned by the Alaska Travel Industry Association that tallied summer 2016 visitation at over 1.8 million. Within that report are results of in-person and online surveys examining purposes of visits and activities in Alaska. A map shows Alaska’s Important Bird Areas, as identified through an Audubon progam, and communities that are birding hotspots. Some of the communities drawing dedicated birders are in rural Alaska and away from the usual tourist destinations. (Map provided by Schwoerer and Dawson study in PLOS ONE)

Bird-watching tourists differ significantly from average Alaska tourists, the study found. While cruise passengers dominate the Alaska tourism business, four out of every five birdwatchers visiting Alaska came by means other than cruise ship, the study said. Birdwatching visitors stay longer, spend significantly more money, are more educated and are more likely to visit areas outside of the usual tourist destinations.

Regions of Alaska that attract birders include rural areas well off the road system. One birdwatching hub, for example, is Nome.

That suggests some new economic opportunities for rural Alaska, the study said. “Rural and remote regions of Alaska are predominately inhabited by indigenous peoples who have had limited economic opportunities but are surrounded by vast tracks of increasingly rare wildlife habitat of global significance. Our results showed that bird tourism provides critical cash flow and rare employment and income opportunities for local communities, presenting viable alternatives to resource extraction,” it concluded.  Three Arctic terns sit on a log floating in Prince William Sound on July 6, 2016. Arctic terns migrate from Antarctic to spend their summers in Alaska. (Photo by Sarah Schoen/USGS Alaska Science Center)

The study also shows the economic importance of maintaining that wildlife habitat, said lead author Schwoerer, who is with UAF’s International Arctic Research Center.

“Once you have visitors who are coming to Alaska spending money on viewing rare species that our surroundings provide the critical habitat for on a global scale, it becomes an incentive to keep that habitat high quality for birds,” Schwoerer said in a statement released by UAF.

Four of the world’s eight migratory bird flyways converge in Alaska, supporting billions of birds, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Migrating birds come to Alaska from as far away as Africa and Antarctica to breed and find food in Alaska’s nearly around-the-clock summer daylight.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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