Canadian border closure extension hurts Southeast Alaska tourism, limits trips to the doctor

Haines and Skagway have struggled for over a year with the Canadian border closed to all but...
Haines and Skagway have struggled for over a year with the Canadian border closed to all but essential travel. (January 2020).(KTUU)
Updated: Jun. 21, 2021 at 3:57 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Canada is keeping its border with the United States closed until at least July 21. The closure is hurting tourism-related businesses in Skagway and Haines.

“We rely a lot in the summertime, especially, with tourism out of the Yukon,” said Mayor Douglas Olerud of Haines. “A lot of people in Whitehorse, Haines Junction, coming down here, put their boats in the water for fishing, come down here hiking.”

Some Haines businesses have been hit hard with the Canadian border closed to all but essential travel. That restriction was extended to July 21 this past Friday.

“Business is dead,” said George Hoffman, owner of Haines Hitch-Up RV Park.

The park has 92 spots for recreational vehicles, but for over a year, there have been just a couple of people staying there each night. Some are road construction workers staying for a couple of months, others are the few “essential” travelers spending a night in Haines before heading north or south.

“It’s just about killed us,” Hoffman said of the closure. He hopes and prays that the border opens soon.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week that the border can open once 75% of the total Canadian population gets a first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. As of June 12, just under 65% of Canadians have gotten their first shot.

But there could be a complicating factor.

Yukon Territory, which borders Alaska to the east, is experiencing its largest outbreak of COVID-19 to date. The province’s chief medical officer announced on Saturday that it has 87 active cases of the virus.

The border closure is broadly hurting tourism.

The annual Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay went virtual in 2021 after being canceled in 2020. The popular Chilkoot Trail can’t be completed from Dyea in Alaska to Bennett in Canada as hikers have to turn around before the border and head back to where they started.

In the south of Southeast Alaska, the border closure has separated the towns of Hyder in Alaska and Stewart in Canada. They may be two towns in name, but during a normal year, they would essentially be one community. That hasn’t been the case for over a year.

“The border is only open for Hyder residents to come to Stewart for essential services,” said Mayor Gina McKay of Stewart, explaining that could include getting fuel or groceries. “There is no socializing and Stewart residents are not permitted to enter Hyder unless it’s deemed to be essential travel.”

The border closure is impacting tourism to Hyder and Stewart, too.

A bear viewing area near Hyder is essentially closed to visitors by road. The Salmon Glacier is a popular destination in British Columbia, but it requires driving briefly into Alaska, meaning it’s inaccessible as well.

Mayor Andrew Cremata of Skagway said while large cruise visitors are critical to the town, Canadian visitors by road are also vital.

“It’s a pretty significant amount of tourism for us,” Cremata said.

In normal times, the border between Canada and the U.S. for Skagway and Hyder residents would be fluid if not non-existent.

It’s also popular to drive from Skagway past the U.S. border checkpoint into an area known as “no man’s land” that extends 15 miles or so into Canada. There are picturesque views from White Pass, looking back over Skagway and hikes that straddle the border.

The closure has residents scared of getting fines for inadvertently crossing into Canada, Cremata said, leading to cabin fever.

It’s also impacting trips to the doctor. Whitehorse in Canada is the biggest nearby town for Haines and Skagway residents and often the most accessible.

Olerud said he would usually drive two hours to Whitehorse to visit an optometrist, but can’t now. Cremata has a dentist and a doctor there that he usually visits. He recently had to fly to Juneau, which can be expensive.

“It was a $340 bill for the plane ride in the morning and back in the afternoon, just to visit the doctor,” he said.

The closure limits shopping for items not available in Skagway and Haines and it’s also impacting pets.

“One of the biggest downsides is being able to access the veterinarian,” Cremata said. “It’s something that’s repeatedly been an issue.”

Cremata owns two ferrets and says that’s a good example of why the border closure is important. There are veterinarians in Juneau and Haines, but one in Whitehorse has a specialized background treating ferrets.

“It’s a lot easier to hop in a car in an emergency situation,” Cremata said. “Go and see the veterinarian, then it is trying to figure out whether or not you’re going to be able to fly.”

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