Alaska’s tourism industry has been devastated by COVID-19. From tour operators and fishing guides to wilderness lodges and transportation providers, people are fighting for their livelihoods. Tourism businesses didn’t cause the coronavirus, but with clear safety protocols, they can lead our state toward economic recovery. However, our industry needs help.
The vast majority of the Alaska Travel Industry Association’s 650 members are small and medium-sized businesses. Once the second-largest private sector employer in the state, our industry is now leading Alaska’s unemployment figures. Last month, a majority of respondents to ATIA’s economic impacts survey said they’ve lost more than 50% of their revenue to date and would be forced to lay off more than half of their employees by June if tourism restrictions were not lifted. In a follow-up survey, more than a third of tourism businesses said they will close their doors for good within six months without summer tourism revenue or some sort of long-term financial support.
Congress and Alaska’s congressional delegation acted quickly to pass the CARES Act, offering financial support for thousands of small businesses. While the Payroll Protection Program and Economic Disaster Injury Loans are partial, short-term fixes, tourism businesses statewide remain challenged by changing implementation processes and complicated eligibility criteria.
The distribution of Alaska’s share of the CARES Act provides additional support for small businesses, however Alaska’s destination marketing organizations and chambers of commerce continue to be excluded from federal programs. The state’s CARES Act funds and those redistributed through municipal grant programs are unintentionally penalizing businesses that already received support from federal funds.
And yet, Alaska’s tourism industry remains hopeful in the face of constant, if not daily impacts. Perhaps it is our sense of resiliency. We focus on positive pathways forward, like the Visit America Act, introduced by Sen. Dan Sullivan. This legislation supports strategies to help tourism recover from COVID-19’s economic impacts. The act’s proposed international visitation goals and call to create a cabinet-level position for tourism within the Department of Commerce will go a long way in rebuilding America’s travel industry. Thank you, senator, for your leadership.
ATIA continues to advocate for destination marketing coupled with safety protocols as tourism businesses look to welcome travelers in a safe and responsible way. Destination marketing organizations, many of which are 501(c)6 nonprofit associations, should be able to access any future federal and state support. These organizations market our state and communities as destinations on behalf of thousands of tourism businesses. We need strong, vibrant organizations to support this mission.
Alaskans understand supporting each other too. This summer, we all have the chance to take advantage of our state’s natural and cultural opportunities. Take a raft trip, fishing charter, wildlife viewing adventure, or glacier flightseeing tour. Explore our state and national parks. You can support local businesses by signing up for tours, staying in hotel rooms, and eating at locally owned restaurants through ATIA’s Show Up For AK! campaign. You’ll help your friends, your neighbors, Alaska-owned businesses — and their employees.
Alaska’s tourism businesses have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. With the help of Alaskans and our dedicated elected officials, our tourism businesses can recover faster while helping our state and local economies.
Sarah Leonard is President and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
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