Alaska Journal | Alaska’s tourism industry sees reason for optimism in 2022 after year of roller coaster ride

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An upside down tourist season for Alaska has ended with great optimism for 2022, according to industry leaders across the state.

“Things have continued to change. While I don’t think our industry was as much in crisis mode as it was in 2020, I would say 2021, during the summer season, was really a mixed bag, ”said Sarah Leonard, CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. . “Overall, we are very grateful to have had the economic activity that we had for 2021.”

This year’s peak visitor season has started with one major hurdle: the prospect of the lack of large cruise ships and the thousands of visitors each can bring for a second year in a row.

Canadian transportation officials announced in February that they would maintain their 2020 ban on large cruise ships in ports across the country, meaning that no foreign-flagged or built cruise ship could sail to Alaska from there. cities on the west coast without breaking federal maritime law.

The 19th-century Passenger Ship Services Act requires foreign passenger ships sailing between U.S. ports to make at least one stopover in a foreign port – then an attempt to support the nation’s shipbuilding and marine industries. .

The Alaska Congressional delegation largely reaffirmed their effectiveness in guiding a temporary exemption from the PVSA through Congress in time for an abbreviated Southeast cruise schedule this year. Lisa Murkowski has since introduced legislation for a permanent exemption from Alaska PVSA.

The first large ships to Alaska since 2019 sailed at the end of July and, according to estimates by local economic researchers, have carried just over 100,000 passengers, or about 10% of recent years.

In addition, no large vessel made the trans-Gulf voyage to the south-central ports during the shortened season. Cruise ships have cumulatively brought several hundred thousand visitors to Seward, Whittier and Anchorage each summer before the pandemic.

Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, a regional development organization, said the disappointment of starting the year in the industry had finally reversed by the end of the summer, in part because cruising activity, but also because of a boom in independent travel. Based on anecdotal reports, many visitor-dependent businesses struggling with a second pandemic summer were enough to keep their doors open, according to Venables.

“Companies that should have folded or taken more drastic measures this winter may be able to hold out until next spring,” he said, when expectations are “much more robust”.

In the north, Explore Fairbanks CEO Scott McCrea said domestic tourism businesses had “done surprisingly well this summer considering all the factors to be included.”

The lack of cruise ships to south-central ports meant far fewer tourists to Fairbanks via coach or Alaska Railroad tours, which typically provide about 40% of the region’s summer tours, according to McCrea. Cross-border road traffic and other international travel have also been depressed by restrictions related to COVID-19, he noted.

“We have certainly seen, like the rest of Alaska, an extraordinary increase in the number of domestic and independent travelers,” said McCrea.

He attributed an increase in last-minute trips to Alaska to very favorable air fares to buyers most of the year.

“Normally we are a destination that people plan months in advance,” he said. “Our visitor information staff spent a lot more time than usual working one-on-one with visitors because they showed up with no plans. “

The unexpected activity has left some visitor-centric businesses understaffed, just a year after the Alaskan Leisure and Hospitality Complex lost nearly 30% of its jobs, according to data from the state labor department.

Airlines have added capacity to Fairbanks and Alaska in general faster than expected. McCrea noted that Fairbanks International Airport experienced record capacity at the start of the summer. In Anchorage, passenger capacity rebounded to 83% of 2019 levels by mid-year, according to officials at Anchorage International Airport Ted Stevens.

McCrea said he expects continued improvement next year as more cruise ships return and border travel likely becomes easier. More immediately, Fairbanks’ aurora watching season has also started well, he said.

“Looks like February and March are going to be strong enough for us,” McCrea said.

Venables added that the many fishing lodges and outfitters in the Southeast also saw strong business over the summer – much of it postponed from 2020.

He has solid expectations for next year. Venables said he would consider a “three-quarterback season” next summer a success; which means roughly 75% of cruise ship traffic compared to the pre-pandemic averages of just over one million cruise passengers.

Leonard of ATIA stressed that encouraging more travel to Alaska is a fundamental way to help the state’s broader economic recovery. Prior to the pandemic, tourism challenged Alaska’s general economic woes in recent years and was one of the state’s fastest growing industries.

“I hope people continue to feel comfortable traveling and we’re finding that feeling really hasn’t changed in the United States and Alaska,” Leonard said.

Elwood Brehmer can be contacted at [email protected].

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