Fairbanks’ reputation as an ideal destination to view the stunning aurora borealis is one of the key reasons Chinese travelers descend upon the Alaskan city during the so-called “aurora season.” Building upon that success, Explore Fairbanks, the destination marketing organization for the city, is seeking to differentiate itself from other northern lights rivals and also establish itself as a year-round destination, including during “midnight sun” season.

Realizing the importance of this market, Alaskan Governor Bill Walker, recently led a delegation representing industries such as travel and tourism like Explore Fairbanks and Visit Anchorage, agriculture, economic development, logistics, and higher education recently participated in the Opportunity Alaska: China Trade Mission to Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu from May 19-30.

While Alaska may be largely off the radar of Chinese tourists, it’s slowly cultivating a niche reputation in China, something that the state’s DMOs hope to expand with recent trade missions

During the mission, Explore Fairbanks announced its expansion into China through the appointment of East West Marketing as its in-country representation firm, making it the first destination marketing organization (DMO) in Alaska with in-market representation.

“We are thrilled to have a firm of East West Marketing’s caliber represent us in this important market,” said Deb Hickok, President and CEO at Explore Fairbanks. “We’ve seen significant growth from China over the last few years, primarily due to our reputation as an aurora destination from the period of August 21 to April 21, and having this on-the-ground representation in the market will help us build on that success.”

Aside from social media, continued direct interaction with Chinese tourism stakeholders features prominently in the strategy of Explore Fairbanks

As part of the contract, East West will conduct sales calls and develop travel trade relations in China’s major cities, coordinate tourism sales missions for Explore Fairbanks and Alaska visitor industry partners. It will also provide airline development support, assist with planning familiarization tours for China-based travel trade and media to come to Fairbanks, and conduct marketing campaigns through social media channels such as WeChat.

With the representation, Explore Fairbanks is also looking to establish relationships with airlines in China that could provide direct charter service to Fairbanks similar to successful seasonal charter operations with Japan Airlines during the aurora season from cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya for almost 15 years now.

Fairbanks’ reputation as an aurora destination is one of the key factors Chinese travelers descend upon this destination during the aurora season.

Building upon this success, Fairbanks is looking at differentiating itself from other aurora destinations that are its competitors—Northern Europe and Canada. Its messaging focuses on why Fairbanks is a better place to see the aurora from a scientific standpoint, its geographic location under the aurora oval as well as being an inland destination with more nights of clear skies than the coastal Northern European destinations.

While Fairbanks does stand out from other U.S. destinations because of its access to the aurora borealis, it still has international competitors it has to differentiate itself from

“Explore Fairbanks has been actively working in China for the last three years and prior to that, there was little knowledge of Alaska as a destination, let alone Fairbanks, said Scott McCrea, Director of Tourism, Explore Fairbanks. “It’s the recognition that despite the success of our efforts in the market, it has just barely touched upon the tip of the iceberg, and we needed on-the-ground representation to take the next step. Now, when we meet with China-based operators at trade shows such as IPW or on sales missions to China, Fairbanks is often times referred to as ‘the famous place to see the aurora’ and now, with the understanding of our aurora season/winter season activities, they are beginning to ask questions about what there is to see and do during our summer of ‘midnight sun’ season.”

While Fairbanks sees a bulk of Chinese visitors during the aurora season, other parts of Alaska, such as Southcentral Alaska, see more in the summer months when the primary draws are wildlife viewing and small-ship glacier cruises.

Beyond the aurora, Fairbanks will also be focusing on other charms which are appealing to the Chinese visitor and making it a year-round destination especially to those returning to the United States and are looking for something “different” and “off the beaten path,” such as the wide open spaces of interior Alaska, the great outdoors, national parks (Denali National Park is only two hours from Fairbanks), the Arctic Circle as well as natural hot springs resort located about 50 miles outside of Fairbanks.

It is encouraging to see smaller destinations such as Fairbanks responding positively and adapting to this evolving group of travelers craving off-the-beaten-path experiences.