FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The first aurora borealis seekers from Japan have arrived in Alaska's interior to launch the unofficial beginning of the northern lights viewing season.
The first Japan Airlines flight of the season landed in Fairbanks on Wednesday with 174 passengers. The flight from Narita Airport near Tokyo is the first of six Japan Airlines charters scheduled to arrive in Fairbanks through Sept. 18, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported (http://is.gd/0k8g9n ).
"The Japanese like the northern lights. They want to come when they can see them," said Hiro Inoue, general manager of A&P, an Anchorage-based company that organizes Japanese visits to Alaska. Inoue was on hand at Fairbanks International Airport to greet the arriving passengers Wednesday.
The visitor industry designates the eight-month period that begins Aug. 21 as aurora-viewing season, even though many people associate northern lights excursions with winter months.
Early season visits have increased over the past decade, from two flights in 2005 to six.
The Fairbanks market has earned a reputation as one of the best places in the world to view northern lights, given the area's favorable geographic location and clear nights.
"It's something that really differentiates us from the Alaska market, and really the entire visitor industry," said Scott McCrea, director of tourism for Explore Fairbanks, which promotes the local visitor industry.
The early season visits still lags behind mid-winter visits, which last season numbered 18 Japan Airlines flights.
Bookings by American tourists looking for northern lights also have grown significantly in the past 15 years, according to Mok Kumagai, a partner at Aurora Borealis Lodge at Cleary Summit.
"Most people are surprised to hear that most of our overnight guests are domestic," he said.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com