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Business/Economy

Gov. Dunleavy launches $5 million Alaska tourism marketing campaign to brand the state as COVID-19 safe

Gov. Mike Dunleavy stars in a new commercial aimed at boosting tourism to Alaska this summer that’s part of a $5 million marketing campaign funded by federal COVID-19 relief money.

The ad bills the state as an exotic but COVID-safe locale in an effort to boost independent travel amid cruise ship cancellations linked to the pandemic.

But while Alaska’s overall coronavirus case counts have dropped sharply, the 30-second visitor spot released Monday relies on outdated vaccination information.

The ad shows Dunleavy on a deck at Juneau’s Mount Roberts Tramway then cuts to shots of the Alaska Railroad, a kayaker near blue ice, bears catching fish, a moose, people gold panning and fishing, and a dogsled ride on a glacier.

“We’re inviting you to come to our great state this summer. If you want to see glaciers, bears, pan for gold ... you name it, Alaska is the place,” the governor says in a voiceover. “Having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, our people are safe. And you will be too.”

Alaska led the nation in vaccination rates for a number of weeks starting in late January, a statistic buoyed in part by the success of the tribal health system getting rural residents of all ages immunized quickly.

The state’s COVID-19 case counts and hospitalization rates have dropped compared to last year though flare-ups continue, most recently in Ketchikan, and before that Fairbanks and Mat-Su. Over the weekend, state health officials reported just 140 new confirmed positives from Saturday through Monday including only 50 Monday.

But Alaska is no longer anywhere near the top nationally when it comes to vaccine distribution.

As of Monday, the state ranked 30th out of states and territories for number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per capita, according to a Centers for Disease Control tracker.

Alaska’s rate of vaccination among total population, at 41.2%, was actually below the U.S. average of 42.5% as of Monday, according to Bloomberg’s tracker.

Statewide, nearly half of all Alaskans over 16 are fully vaccinated. Some tourist-drawing regions are higher, like Juneau at nearly 70%. But some popular destinations remain far below that level, including Dunleavy’s home turf of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough -- where about a third of residents are vaccinated -- or the Kenai Peninsula at about 40%.

Asked about the discrepancy regarding vaccination rates, a spokesman for the governor said the video was shot “weeks ago” and Alaska is open for business, as shown by the end of COVID-19 restrictions.

“With mask mandates going away including in Anchorage and communities opening up across the state, vaccinations are a huge reason behind that,” spokesman Corey Allen Young wrote in an email.

He did not respond directly to an additional request asking for the governor’s response on the state’s drop in vaccine rankings or the ad’s use of outdated information.

The Dunleavy commercial is part of a broader effort announced last month to encourage Alaska tourism that includes vaccinations for tourists at Alaska’s airports starting June 1.

Tourism-dependent businesses around the state are entering a second summer without the large cruise ships that bring about two thirds of Alaska’s travelers here; losses last year were estimated at $3 billion.

The U.S. Senate last week passed a bill that could allow large cruise ships to visit Alaska this summer despite Canadian restrictions that have closed that country to cruise travel. It still needs to pass the House and be signed by President Joe Biden.

The state, like many others, is also in the midst of a rental car shortage that could make for tricky trip planning this summer.

Money for the new ads comes from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds appropriated to the Dunleavy administration by the Alaska Legislature, according to the governor’s office. Funding breaks down into $4 million for television spots, $500,000 for radio, and $500,000 for digital advertisements — a total of 1,700 spots over nearly seven weeks.

The contract for the campaign was exempted from state procurement rules according to a request for information the governor’s office posted in April. The state received 11 letters of interest, five from out of state firms, according to Young.

Selected were Brilliant Media Strategies, for television; Porcaro Communications, for radio; and Optima Public Relations, for digital.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association, the nonprofit that manages the Travel Alaska statewide destination marketing program, is providing its website for more information, according to spokesman Jeff Samuels.

The association is managing a separate national paid digital campaign to encourage travelers with the slogan: “Go Big, Go Alaska.”

Tour groups and tour-sales booths fill the waterfront in downtown Juneau on Sunday, June 2, 2019 as the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas disgorges passengers. (James Brooks / ADN)

Word of the state ad campaign was cheered by members of the tourism industry still reeling from pandemic losses.

Revenues at Juneau’s Trove boutique gift shop were down 98% last year, according to co-owner Daren Booton.

“We’re for anything that going to help visitors increase,” Booton said. “It’s such a hit for Juneau and Southeast Alaska, we’re so reliant on the cruise industry, so anything we can do to increase the independent traveler when the cruise industry is not going is a good thing.”

The Alaska Railroad delayed the start of this year’s season until after Memorial Day weekend and is seeing “decent numbers” of bookings, said spokesman Tim Sullivan. The railroad is requiring full masking and maintaining social distancing.

But without cruise ships, the outlook this season is “not the best,” Sullivan said.

“This is something that’s needed for the state,” he said, of the ad campaign. “We are glad to see it happening.”

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