Alaska Native Corporation sues Denali-area airport for bringing tourists straight from Lower 48

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A regional Alaska Native society is working with state transportation officials and the Borough of Denali on a proposal for a new airport that would allow Lower 48 tourists to travel directly to the gates of the national park and preserve from Denali.

According to Doyon Ltd., “Denali Airport,” as he describes the concept in a 22-page booklet, could be built north of Healy on state land, allowing tourists to quickly reach the park after arriving from, say, Seattle, San Francisco or Anchorage.

The project must overcome high costs, permit requirements and other challenges. But if built, it could provide a new travel option for the park’s more than 600,000 annual visitors who want a close-up view of North America’s tallest mountain.

These visitors now often spend part of their day traveling overland to the park as part of a cruise package, especially from Anchorage, more than five hours by bus and longer by train.

“In recent years, as Doyon has strengthened its presence in tourism, people in the industry have continued to use the phrase ‘Bring the mountain closer'” said Aaron Schutt, CEO of Doyon, in an interview.

That’s what Doyon, the Fairbanks-based Native Society for Interior Alaska, is trying to do, he said.

“One thing about cruise add-ons is that you have maybe three days or five days, and if you spend a day on a bus, you just burnt one of those days,” he said.

In Doyon’s opinion, a relatively small airport could be built at one of two prime locations off the Parks Freeway, according to the booklet. One is about 20 minutes from the park, near Healy. The other is about 45 minutes away, near the community of Clear.

But to accommodate 737 jets with nearly 200 passengers, an airport with a runway over a mile long could cost well over $50 million, according to the booklet’s estimates.

Under the plan, the track would be built by the state, using federal funding whenever possible, Schutt said. The proposed terminal, filled with cultural facilities and dining facilities, could be built and owned by Doyon, Schutt said. It could cost $18 million.

Schutt said the project could boost Doyon’s own tourism businesses associated with the park, such as a lodge, bus tours and a joint venture providing many park services.

But it would also improve statewide tourism, he said, potentially freeing up time for visitors to travel more in Alaska.

“We’re creating a bigger pie for all of us hopefully that creates more opportunity across the state,” Schutt said.

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Barriers include funding, federal approval

The idea is causing concern in Fairbanks that it can reduce the number of tourists who go there before heading to Denali, said Scott McCrea, president of Explore Fairbanks.

But Doyon’s proposal is so new that Explore Fairbanks needs to know more about Indigenous society, he said. The group did not take a position on the idea, he said.

A bus ride from Fairbanks to the park can take over two hours.

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“We support infrastructure growth and bring more visitors to Alaska and the interior, but we don’t want that to hurt tourism in Fairbanks,” he said.

Over the past few months, the Borough of Denali and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Facilities have met with Doyon to advance the idea, says Schutt.

The local government and state agency were already considering replacing the small airport at Healy when Doyon arrived, said Judy Chapman, chief planning officer for the transit agency’s northern region.

“All three entities worked on different planning iterations for a similar facility,” she said in an email.

“All efforts have come together due to mutual/overlapping interests and progress at the same time,” she said.

The borough has been pursuing the concept of a regional airport for many years, to expand aviation options beyond the area’s smaller airports, said Clay Walker, the borough’s mayor. Regional airports can usually accept domestic flights.

“We’re pretty underserved aviation-wise here,” Walker said.

The borough is excited to work with Doyon and the state to find ways to bring a regional airport to the area, he said. It could support new jobs and improve emergency and freight services, he said.

“There could be a range of economic benefits,” he said.

Doyon carried out early engineering and architectural work for more than a year as he searched for a suitable site for a runway and terminal, Schutt said.

Plans show that construction will end around 2028.

“It’s not just the funding, but getting the process approved by the Federal Aviation Administration will be a long and difficult effort,” Schutt said. “We understand that on entering.”

A terminal that is also a tourist hub

With tourism expected to continue to grow in Alaska, the proposed airport isn’t the only effort underway to attract visitors to the state. Projects include Huna Totem’s plans to build a cruise pier in Whittier, while the Alaska Railroad is taking steps to replace and expand an old cruise pier to accommodate new large ships in Seward.

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Nolan Klouda, director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, said he sees the airport and a new travel option to the park as a possible benefit for Alaska tourism.

“It probably has the potential to increase more visitation than poaching from other destinations,” he said.

Some organizations that support tourism in Alaska, including the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said they needed to know more about the details of the concept.

“Without knowing the detailed plans, ATIA is always interested in learning more about new tourism products and developments to enhance the visitor experience,” said Sarah Leonard, executive director of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Doyon sees the airport as part of a cultural corridor he is developing in Alaska with Huna Totem, an indigenous village society in Southeast Alaska.

The hallway focuses on “underexplored visitor opportunities across the state,” according to the booklet. The airport could potentially support trips to, for example, villages off the road network, Schutt said. He said it could also stay open in the winter, perhaps serving tourists who want to see the Northern Lights or other attractions.

As for the terminal, it would be built as a destination in itself, with mountain views, interpretive trails and exhibits showcasing the area’s environment and culture, Schutt said.

“Airports are transportation hubs, not tourism hubs, in general,” Schutt said. “We’re trying to change that a bit with this one.”

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