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Forecasting Alaska: Alaska’s tourism industry is still uncertain in 2021

Alaska’s tourism industry, how it started and how it’s going.
Published: Feb. 4, 2021 at 5:07 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Flowers in full bloom, busy streets and lots of tourists: a scene that was the norm for Alaska up until the coronavirus pandemic brought many things to a screeching halt.

“Alaska’s tourism industry has been hit hard by the pandemic,” said Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Alaska’s News Source spoke with Leonard in May 2020, just as things were starting to shut down. Fast forward nine months later, not much has changed.

“I don’t think honestly we could have prepared for what happened,” she said.

In 2020, Leonard said the state was anticipating a record tourism year with 2.4 million visitors, but with almost all pathways to Alaska shut down or cut off, tourism took a hit.

In the state’s capital, it was the same story.

“It was incredibly quiet and it left a lot of us just kind of wringing our hands just trying to figure out how to approach 21 and 22 actually,” said Liz Perry, president and CEO of Travel Juneau.

According to Perry, in 2020, Juneau was expecting about 1.2 to 1.3 million cruise passengers to pass through. Not to mention the additional 7% to 8% of individual travel as well.

So, what does that translate to in dollars? That’s about $64 million in spending and about $3.2 million in sales tax revenue. Perry shared information from a survey conducted by McKinley Research in 2018 that found that 91,000 independent visitors, approximately 7% of the number of cruise passengers, fly into Juneau and spend on average $704 each trip.

“If nothing else, I think it has put us on a heightened level of alert for those things and preparedness is everything,” added Perry.

Leonard and her team are constantly monitoring local, state and federal health and safety guidelines and regulations, but with changes happening daily, it’s almost impossible to know what 2021 will bring.

“It’s really challenging to predict and for businesses to plan for employment because things are still so uncertain,” said Leonard.

Perry believes it will take another market cycle to get things going again.

“I believe that if we can get a large number of people to get vaccinated and to really get their heads wrapped around the necessity of paying attention and social distancing if we can corral those numbers, that is going to be what makes a big difference in the industry and a successful restart,” added Perry.

In-state travel from Alaskans also made a big difference. Leonard added there’s also been some positive movement with smaller vessels listing itineraries for spring in Alaska as well as summer expanded air service from its airline partners. While it might not have been in the numbers the state is used to seeing, it still allowed businesses a chance to adapt to this new normal.

“Alaska residents really stepped up and supported local tourism businesses this past summer. I hope that they’re there again for us this spring and summer, we are in this together,” said Leonard.

“We’ve had several businesses that successfully shuffled things around, re-tooled and got something off the ground,” added Perry.

One of those businesses is Juneau Food Tours. Midgi Moore is the owner and operator and said it wasn’t easy in the beginning.

“Full disclosure, I had my moment of sheer panic and desperation back in the spring of 2020,” said Moore.

But, that didn’t stop her from revitalizing an idea she had three years ago to do a food tour in a box. The seasonal boxes are filled with food and art all made in Alaska, plus travel guides to help plan your next trip. Moore’s business idea was so successful, she went from an office space in a historic building to now operating out of a street-level storefront in Juneau.

“I want to help my fellow Alaskans survive this pandemic as much as I want to help myself and it’s a way to share the love and help people get back into business even if it’s just a little bit at a time. You’re back to the hustle and grind of when you first started your business and you were there at one point, it’s not bad to go back there and reevaluate and maybe do things a little bit differently,” said Moore.

Just another innovative, think outside the box idea, sending a piece of Alaska outside until visitors are able to come back inside.

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