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Fairbanks

Coronavirus leads hundreds of Chinese tourists to cancel Alaska winter trips

The road to Ester Dome gives a view of the Fairbanks area on Jan. 8, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The fast-moving coronavirus outbreak is keeping Chinese travelers at home, leading to hundreds of cancellations during the peak of Alaska’s growing winter tourism season.

About 500 travelers have canceled February itineraries with a travel agency that caters solely to Chinese tourists. Hotels, dog mushing businesses and aurora borealis tour operators also report losing out on business.

The outbreak "happened at the worst time it could possibly have happened,” said Jin Chen, the chief operating officer of Alaska Skylar Travel, which maintains offices in Anchorage and Beijing.

The coronavirus first hit at the end of January just as the Lunar New Year was about to get underway, a popular time for Chinese families to travel abroad as well as a prime month for aurora viewing in Alaska, Chen said. Government travel restrictions, mass quarantines and airline flight suspensions have now all but halted travel between China and the United States.

Skylar Travel’s Beijing office has been closed since the end of January.

“Everyone has been working from home,” Chen said. “We haven’t furloughed anybody — yet. A lot of companies in China, especially the bigger ones, have.”

Chen checks in with her own family in China daily. Life has been profoundly disrupted.

“Everyone stays home. No one is going to work. Their life is completely changed.”

In Alaska, hotel operators and tour guides report cancellations linked to coronavirus restrictions — or fears.

Frost and snow cover a statue in Golden Heart Plaza in downtown Fairbanks on Jan. 8, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

At Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks, some tour groups have canceled, said marketing director Javier Villasenor-Gaona.

Other visitors canceled because of the perception that Chena Hot Springs “attracts too many guests from China,” Villasenor-Gaona said.

“A lot of it is misinformation and panic regarding our destination and we are afraid that most of it may be xenophobia,” he said.

The resort is still fully booked, he said.

The Alaska Railroad has seen about 100 cancellations from groups in early February, said spokesman Tim Sullivan.

Aurora tourism in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, has undergone a similar downturn, with idling businesses laying off guides.

Chinese tourists make up a relatively small but fast-growing group of travelers to Alaska.

The number of Chinese visitors to to the state has grown more than 70% since 2013, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

The state hosted close to 6,000 Chinese travelers in 2019 — which some operators say is likely an undercount, putting the number at more like 10,000. Winter is by far the most popular time to visit, mostly due to cheaper travel and the draw of aurora borealis viewing, according to Chen and other operators.

Alaska tourism groups say they are cautiously watching the coronavirus outbreak unfold, but don’t predict major disturbances to tourism in the long term.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association is “closely tracking developments related to the coronavirus occurrence in China, a growing international market for Alaska tourism,” the organization said in a January statement.

In Fairbanks, tourism businesses “have received cancellations from tour operators who specialize in group travel from China, especially during a peak travel period of the Chinese New Year,” according to a report from Explore Fairbanks’ contract China-based marketing group.

In a written statement, Explore Fairbanks said it predicts that while “short-term business has been affected, there will be a rebound” in late summer. About 80% of winter visitors to Fairbanks come from the Lower 48, the organization said.

Chen says she believes cancellations will drop and visits will rebound in March — not because she’s optimistic about the trajectory of the coronavirus outbreak, but because many potential Alaska visitors are already in the United States. Her company’s clientele that month leans toward Chinese students studying abroad in the Lower 48 who spend their spring break chasing the aurora in Alaska.

Those students would not be affected by travel bans. Explore Fairbanks also said the city’s mid-February through April visitors are mostly Chinese students living in the United States.

As of mid-February, Alaska had recorded no coronavirus cases. In the long term, the state will still be an attractive destination for international tourists, said Sullivan, with the Alaska Railroad.

“Whether political tumult, economic problems or a virus — people look at Alaska and we are the safe alternative to a lot of other travel plans,” he said.

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