Amid glimmers of hope, Gustavus’ economic recovery is a work in progress

Though the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, some communities in Alaska are boasting great progress since last year’s dismal tourism season
Visitors, residents and business owners in Gustavus said the community is showing promise for an economic rebound, following a strong summer season.
Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 10:14 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remain visible almost anywhere you travel in America. Though the same can be said for Gustavus, a tiny town in Southeast Alaska, business owners are full of hope as the 2021 summer season continues with great progress compared to 2020.

A tiny, largely tourism-based town, Gustavus’ population generally sits around 500, with that number ballooning in the summer. Last year, however, was different.

“Last year was a struggle,” said Leah Okin, who runs the Gustavus’ Visitors’ Association as a vice president and manages Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks based in Gustavus. ”We are very much dependent on visitors; that’s what drives our economy. And without visitor economy, we don’t have things to — money to fix roads, or really do anything. The whole chain of events breaks down if we don’t have the visitors.”

Residents and business owners, though, feel they’re bouncing back from what was not only a challenging 2020 but a devastating year at that. Visitors have flocked to the small town by jet and charter plane, carrying luggage and — often — full wallets, prepared to provide a boost to the economy.

As for local shop owners, they’ve had to be resilient, even as the economy crashed. For some, such as Kelly McLaughlin, who runs a gallery and coffee shop, that resilience meant refusing to shut her doors.

“I stayed open and the customers were super grateful,” said McLaughlin, who owns Fireweed Gallery. “The ones that continued to come were really grateful to have somewhere to go. And a lot of them are single people.

“Gustavus is really founded around community,” she continued, “and we lost a lot of that through COVID, so it’s really nice to be able to have a place for people to still gather and commune.”

Inside McLaughlin’s store, which she said first opened in the 1990′s, art, decor and clothing deck the walls. Situated next to a small cafe that caters to those with dietary restrictions, McLaughlin said she’s been happy with the response from people, despite the pandemic continuing to present challenges.

“I think people are pretty stoked when they get to come in here,” she said. “And I kind of like that it’s a little bit of a hole in the wall. Like, we’re at (the intersection called) Four Corners, but you don’t really know what’s in there until you walk in.”

Another treasure trove is located just up the street from McLaughlin’s shop, though it’s centered mainly on groceries and other small goods: Sunnyside Market, which reopened this summer, is one of the few stores that provide fresh fruits and vegetables, among other items, to the town.

“We pushed the opening date back as much as we could,” said Mariah Patrick, an assistant manager at the shop. “So we could just focus more on, you know, making things right rather than rushing and opening up, and it was great.”

In the middle of the pandemic, the market opened its doors again after its previous owners closed down shop before the pandemic even started.

“It open for many years, then those folks moved on to other jobs,” said Kate Boesser, a shopper at the market. “But they have come back this year. Best food, lots of fresh food, and good prices. And it just really makes the neighborhood feel good.”

Down the road from the market is a fishing lodge, Alaskan Anglers Inn, that has also been seeing its strong customer base not only return, but expand.

“Since it’s not my first trip, this is like a comfort food kind of thing, like coming home,” said Tom Buck, who was back in Alaska from Colorado for a week at the lodge.

“It’s a wonderful return journey for us,” he said. “This year I brought the boys with me; last year my wife came with me. I have no idea who’s going to come next year, but we’ll be back for sure.”

Guy Suchomel, a manager at Alaskan Anglers Inn, said that in his eyes, Alaska has simple decided that “we can’t have another year like last year.”

“That’s what it seems like,” he said. “So it’s been much easier to deal with this year. And there’s a lot of pent-up demand. I mean, normally we do a lot of shows, solicit business, but we couldn’t do any of that because those type of activities were shut down, and yet we booked all on our own this year.

“From the day we opened – normally we start slow,” he said. “But we had a full house, and we’re having a full house right through September.”

And while most businesses across Alaska are working on surviving, many in Gustavus are thriving.

Okin said her kayak tourism business is up by about 30% over 2019 after being closed entirely in 2020.

“And there’s a lot of hidden treasures that if you’re just driving around, you wouldn’t know were there,” she said of the town. “You really need to get one of the brochures and the maps and go exploring.”

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