Palin's rise to fame helping, hurting Alaska image

ANCHORAGE — Like a sports celebrity or a high-end running shoe, America's snowy vacationland has a brand image to maintain. Since Alaska became regular headline fodder with Gov. Sarah Palin's Republican vice presidential nomination, the state is everywhere.

Much of the buzz is the kind tourism experts like to see: Charles Gibson on the scenic shores of Lake Lucille. Wide panning shots of misty mountain vistas on CNN. Even a Newsweek cover with Palin holding a rifle over her shoulder reflects a desirable rustic charm.

But, as the governor has become an increasingly controversial figure, some images have been less picturesque.

There was the national columnist who described Wasilla as :a soulless strip mall without sidewalks." And the parade of gory late-night jokes about aerial wolf hunting. And the "Saturday Night Live" skit that featured an unfunny reference to backwoods incest ("I mean, come on," the character said. "It's Alaska").

At the Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center, where the Alaska Travel Industry Association was holding a trade show recently, conversations on the floor of the exhibit hall veered to politics and Palin and the press.

What will it mean in the long run? Will negative portrayals stick?

"Welcome to Alaska," one attendee joked a little warily in the lobby. "Home of Joe Six-pack." THE 'PALIN EFFECT'

Unflattering comedy skits aside, Palin's rise seem to be good for tourism, said Ron Peck, ATIA’s president and chief operating officer. The governor's media prominence has sparked national curiosity about the state — more than 50,000 requests for information this year, double last year’s count.

The question now is how many of those will turn into real visitors.

Last year about 16 percent of people who asked for information actually came within a year's time, Peck said. But in this economy, even with the added interest, it's hard to say what will happen. The state targets baby boomers in particular, and now they're looking at their tanking investments and worrying about paying bills, never mind vacations, he said.

Late-night cable jokes are not the kind of attention the industry is looking for. Still, "the net effect of Governor Palin's national exposure is positive for us," Peck said

That's not to say things have been easy. Just before the Palin pick, ATIA sent out 500,000 brochures featuring her picture, inviting people to visit. They've done it with every governor since Gov. Steve Cowper in the late 1980s.

There are another 2.6 million printed and ready to go, but the Federal Election Commission recommended they not be sent out until after Nov. 4, to be sure they don't violate campaign rules.

In some regions of the country, Palin is drawing enormous crowds of supporters, while in other places she’s far less popular. This raises all kind of questions for tourism experts: Is it a good idea to use her image at all? Is it better to use her in some regions but not in others? What happens if she becomes the vice president?

There's no plans right now to make any changes, Peck said. NOWHERE, AK

Many conference attendees were looking at ways to use the press — positive and negative — to their advantage. Take Ketchikan, home of the infamous "bridge to nowhere."

"We made T-shirts," said Patti Mackey of the Ketchikan Visitors' Bureau.

One of them, made by a local artist, sat in a basket on the silent auction table. It read, "Nowhere, AK, 99901."

Since the day of Palin’s announcement, visitors to the southeast Alaska cruise ship port have been fascinated with her, Mackey said. The questions give locals an opening to correct wrong information.

No one is more weary of national attention than Cheryl Metiva, head of the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. Woe to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd should she ever cross Metiva’s path. Dowd was the one who called Wasilla "soulless." It still bugs Metiva, especially that Dowd interviewed a sweat-pants clad Wal-Mart shopper, like it was her agenda to make Wasilla look red-neckish.

"She saw exactly what she was looking for and wanted to see," Mateva groused.

She's worked with dozens of journalists from other places and many of them have been perfectly professional, especially those who come from abroad, she said. She had a great time working with "The Late Show with David Letterman," which did a top-ten list from Wasilla. Letterman might have been critical of McCain and Palin, she said, but getting her town on television was a good thing. ALASKA MYSTIQUE

Mark Hopkin, president of Anchorage's Porcaro Communications, wasn't at the conference, but he's been watching how Alaska is being played in the media. From a marketing standpoint, it helps the state to appear different from the rest of the United States, he said. All the talk of moose hunting, quirky characters and broadcasts from Wasilla bars adds to the mystique, he said.

"From the standpoint of getting people interested in coming to Alaska to visit I think that showing some of Alaska's rough-hewn side is kind of a good thing."

It's like the show "Northern Exposure," which some people didn't like because it seemed phony. Hopkin liked it because, small inaccuracies aside, it made Alaska look unique.

"If people came up here and experienced only the really civilized part of Alaska, they might be a little bit disappointed to find it's in a lot of ways the same as the rest of the country," he said.

Still, there is a line. His pet peeve is overdone portrayals of aerial predator control. It makes Alaskans seem blood-thirsty and nature-hating, even though, he said, if you understand the issue, you know a reasonable person could make an argument for it. It never looks good to have people being rude, he said.

"If you are showing people who are racist and saying ignorant things, then that's negative," he said. "You never want people to think that you’re nasty intolerant people."

Sometimes Alaska benefits when Palin doesn’t. Tina Fey's skits on Saturday Night Live are a good example. They make the state seem quirky, but are tough on Palin.

Hopkin can imagine a tourism campaign using Palin's image — something like "Wanna come to Alaska? You betcha" — but right now he's cautious. A lot will depend on what happens next month and how people feel afterwards.

"I’d probably wait for the dust to settle a little bit," he said.