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China affirms spot as top importer of Alaska goods, spending $1.3 billion

Alex DeMarban
Fish is just the beginning of Alaska's exports to China. Aaron Jansen illustration

China’s growing economy continues to roar for Alaska, with exports to the Middle Kingdom expected to reach $1.3 billion in 2013 as fears over food safety have the Chinese increasingly turning to wild seafood imports as a healthy alternative.  

Exports to the world’s most populated nation have reached “unprecedented” levels for Alaska, rising more than tenfold since 2000 when they were $103 million. “We have never seen a major market for Alaska exports grow as fast,” said Greg Wolf, executive director of World Trade Center Alaska.

Overall, Alaska exports were valued at $4.5 billion last year, putting Alaska 40th in the nation. But with a small population of about 730,000, the 49th state is fourth in the value of exports per person, Wolf said.

Alaska exports to China have plateaued in recent years as the growth in the Chinese economy has slowed, but China still outpaced second-place Japan, which used to be Alaska’s top trading partner and will have imported more than $719 million of goods once the final numbers are in for 2013.

Fish represent a little more than half the exports to China, a country that has historically bought and reprocessed Alaska seafood, selling the fish to markets in other countries, including the U.S. That remains a common practice.

But in a promising sign, the Chinese are increasingly consuming Alaska fish, said Alexa Tonkovich, with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The institute, which has maintained an office in China for years, has worked to raise awareness of the health benefits of Alaska seafood. It appears to be working, with the growth in awareness “off the charts,” according to surveys, Tonkovich said. Those surveys show the Chinese increasingly recognize the purity of Alaska fish and the sustainable practices of the fishing industry, Tonkovich said.

One advertising campaign was particularly successful, generating headlines in China about how Alaska seafood stole the show on a popular retail web site in China – Tmall.com. The seafood institute had advertised Alaska seafood on the site during a 10-day promotional period leading up to Singles Day on Nov. 11, a huge celebration and shopping day for single people that generates more sales than Cyber Monday in the U.S.

During the 10 days, buyers placed some 34,000 seafood orders worth more than $1 million. More than 50 tons of Alaska seafood -- including crab, salmon, sea cucumbers and yellowfin sole -- was delivered to doorsteps across the country, said Tonkovich. Another 8 tons of seafood was ordered on Singles Day.

Wolf said Alaska has benefited from having the right commodities at the right time -- the natural resources that a booming economy like China needs. Alaska is also in the right place, relatively close to China and other big Asian economies, such as in Japan or India.

“It’s a great neighborhood,” he said.   

Minerals also made up a large part of Alaska’s exports to China in 2013:

• Gold ore concentrate from Kensington Mine in Southeast Alaska goes into jewelry and circuitry.

• Lead from Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska is often used in car batteries.  

• Copper from Canada is shipped out of Alaska through the port in Skagway.

There’s also potential with other resources. Alaska hasn’t tapped into its huge reserves of natural gas on the North Slope, another commodity of interest to Asian buyers. There’s also huge potential in the state’s vast but little-developed supply of coal, said Wolf.

And as middle class incomes rise, the Chinese are increasingly interested in vacations, creating a growth opportunity in tourism for Alaska. Tourism from China is relatively small today, representing less than 1 percent of the state’s tourism market.

“But I think it will see some pretty significant growth” in the coming years, said Patricia Eckert, with the governor’s office of international trade. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com