Bird lovers boost Alaska’s economy | Polarjournal
The bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) is actually a Eurasian species, but still occurs east of the Bering Sea in northern Alaska. Photo: Seth Beaudreault/Toolik Field Station

Wildlife attracts countless nature lovers around the globe, especially where their density is high. Like in Alaska, for example. In addition to bears, moose and wolves, several hundred bird species can be observed there. So it’s not surprising that hundreds of thousands of bird enthusiasts travel to Alaska every year – bringing enormous profits to the local economy. A recent study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the bird conservation organization Audubon Alaska determined that nearly 300,000 birders came in 2016, spending about $378 million.

Alaska hosts the world’s largest concentration of shorebirds and is a global hotspot for hundreds of migratory bird species that breed here – ideal conditions for birders who, attracted by rare and hard-to-find bird species, come in large numbers. Bird watching is considered one of the fastest growing nature-oriented tourism sectors in the world.

Yet birdwatchers have been pretty much disregarded when it comes to calculating tourism revenue. The focus here has been more on visitors who travel the largest U.S. state with large companies by boat, train or bus. The research in the new study, which appeared in the journal PLOS ONE, found that in 2016, the hundreds of thousands of birders supported about 4,300 jobs in Alaska with their spending of about $378 million, which is comparable to the mining and telecommunications industries.

Compared to other tourists, birders spent over 50 percent more per person, largely on guided tours and other activities. In addition, birders tended to travel in smaller groups, more frequently to remote regions of Alaska, and stayed an average of four days longer. Hotspots among the ornithologists included Southeast Alaska and Nome.

Birdwatchers are usually quite easy to spot: Typically middle-aged or older and with good equipment, such as binoculars, spotting scopes and/or cameras with super-telephoto lenses. Photo: Lisa Hupp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Data for the current study were based on a survey conducted by the Alaska Visitors Statistics Program, which every four years asks visitors about the modes of transportation they use to and from Alaska and within the state, how much they spend, and what kind of activities they engage in. 

At the same time, birding as a sustainable activity makes a previously underestimated contribution to habitat conservation. «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,» explains Tobias Schwoerer, leader of the study and an economist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

According to Schwoerer, the large number of birders represent a previously underutilized opportunity for the development of small, niche ecotourism operations, particularly in rural communities where highly desirable bird species can be found.

« Independent travelers are more likely to take a flight out to the Pribilofs, or go to the Aleutians to see an exotic species they can’t find elsewhere, or book a trip with a small operator who drives Sprinter vans from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay,» Schwoerer says.

Birdwatching hotspots and “Important Bird Areas” in Alaska can be found especially along the coast and on the islands. But also in the interior it is worthwhile. Map: Schwoerer & Dawson, 2022

The study was initiated by Natalie Dawson, who led birding hikes and bike tours for Audubon Alaska in the Haines Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Visitors who left the typical tourist trails equipped with binoculars gave her the idea. «This study gives us a glimpse of how diverse our state’s tourism is and can be in the future, as well as how intertwined our communities are with visitors in the shared experience of marveling at the wonders of birds,» Dawson says.

«Sustainable and well-managed birdwatching is a growth sector. Birdwatching in Alaska is a type of tourism where Alaskans can capitalize on the region’s intact lands and waters,» says David Krause, Audubon Alaska’s interim executive director and conservation director. «It’s an exciting place of opportunity that protects irreplaceable and fragile ecosystems while supporting jobs.»

Julia Hager, PolarJournal 

Featured image: Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

Link to the study: Tobias Schwoerer, Natalie G. Dawson. Small sight—Big might: Economic impact of bird tourism shows opportunities for rural communities and biodiversity conservation. PLOS ONE, 2022; 17 (7): e0268594 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0268594

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