Whales are a multi-million-dollar economic driver in Alaska

553,000 visitors in 2019 alone spent $86 million on whale watching tours

A humpback whale breaching in Prince William Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries research biologist John Moran of NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories

A new study from NOAA Fisheries highlights the economic importance of whales to Alaska, not as a source of blubber, meat and baleen, but as a tourism attraction. Over half a million visitors to the state in 2019 alone spending an estimated $86 million on whale watching tours, and the overall economic impact doesn’t end there.

This confirms that whale watching is an important economic driver for the state, said NOAA officials, who contracted the researching to the McDowell Group, an Alaska research and consulting firm recently acquired by McKinley Capital Management in Anchorage.

The report estimates the economic impact for 2019, specifically from commercial whale watching by non-residents in coastal waters between Ketchikan and Unalaska.

Researchers relied on a variety of information sources, primarily interviews with 58 whale watching firms, marine-based wildlife tour operators, and charter sportfishing businesses in 14 coastal communities. McDowell researchers also studied visitor industry reports and data, including the Alaska Visitor Statistics Programs associated traffic reports. Economic impact modeling was conducted with IMPLAN, a commonly used econometric modeling tool.

Whale watching has proven to be one of the most popular activities for summer out-of-state visitors to Alaska, with 553,000 visitors, or one-quarter of Alaska’s 2.2 million summer visitors in 2019 spending an average of $156 on their tour. Some $22 million of the total spent was paid in commissions to cruise lines, travel agents and dock vendors.

Juneau claimed two-thirds of the market share in 2019, with 66 percent, followed by Seward with 17 percent and all other areas of Alaska another 17 percent.

In addition to those 553,000 visitors who took whale watching tours, around one million visitors were able to see the whales from cruise ships, ferries and charter fishing vessels.

Businesses engaged in whale watching operated 137 boats and 50 kayaks in 2019 for a total of 187 vessels with 6,692 seats. While some provide wildlife tours with a significant whale watching component, most are solely dedicated to whale watching. A few others also provide other services, such as sportfishing charters or transporter services for remote drop-offs, freight hauling and other activities, but focus on whale watching for at least a portion of their business.

These whale watching firms employ hundreds of Alaska residents, and make local purchases in support of their operations.

Thus, whale watching accounted for 850 direct, peak season jobs in 2019 and 255 indirect/induced jobs, for a total employment impact of 1,105 people. The industry accounted for $23.4 million in director labor income and $13.9 million in indirect/induced labor income for a total labor income impact of $37.3 million last year. The total economic output resulting from the industry for 2019 is estimated at $103 million, McDowell Group researchers concluded.

Beyond economic impacts measured in this study, whale watching visitors spent additional funds on whale-related souvenirs and food and beverages on their tours, but since the exact nature of those expenditures is unknown, that economic impact was not included in this study.