In 2019, tourism was the second-largest private sector employer in Alaska. The landscape in 2020 is devastatingly different for tourism operators, large and small, across our state because of COVID-19.
Alaska’s tourism jobs are in danger. U.S Travel, the national tourism association, is calling this The Great Travel Depression. More than 8 million tourism jobs have been lost nationally — 38% of all jobs lost across all sectors of the nation’s economy. The story is similar in Alaska, where the Department of Labor estimates Alaska’s tourism, hospitality, and leisure industry has lost 32% of jobs year-over year (June 2020).
As the leading statewide association for travel and tourism in Alaska, the Alaska Travel Industry Association, or ATIA — and the many small businesses we represent — has experienced this devastating reality firsthand. More than 86% of Alaska’s tourism businesses report losing more than half of their revenue (year-over-year) as of July, according to an informal ATIA survey. Many businesses report they will be forced to close their doors permanently this fall, even with short-term financial support through state and federal economic stimulus packages.
Our elected officials can help save Alaska tourism.
The Alaska Legislature recessed prior to acting on a number of capital budget items, including support for Alaska’s statewide tourism marketing program. The return on investment for the state from destination marketing support is high. By carrying the message Alaska is the premier travel destination of choice, we can raise Alaska’s brand awareness, bring visitors to Alaska’s wide open spaces — safely — and educate potential visitors on our industry’s safe travel best practices.
In Washington D.C., Congress can help save the travel industry, too. The Paycheck Protection Program, aka PPP, is a critical lifeline for small businesses throughout the country to keep their doors open and people employed. The U.S. Senate’s latest relief and stimulus bill, the HEALS Act, building upon the HEROES Act, introduced by the U.S. House, supports improvements to the PPP and expanding it to include destination marketing organizations, many of which are 501(c)6 nonprofits. These amendments — particularly loan forgiveness — are desperately needed.
At ATIA, our role is to promote our state to visitors and business travelers who will support our local businesses — from our fishing guides and wilderness lodges to amazing wildlife tour operators, local breweries and seafood restaurants. Alaska’s travel and tourism industry has made difficult decisions to stay afloat, while sharing critical information and encouraging our communities and visitors to follow health and safety measures — like wearing masks, maintaining safe distances and washing hands regularly. We also remind everyone Alaska is an amazing place, rich in culture, wildlife and wild landscapes — we will be ready once travel can pick back up.
The stakes are high right now for the survival of Alaska’s tourism industry. We know we will look different next year, but tourism can continue to be an economic driver for our state. Travel is a renewable, sustainable resource. In the coming years, our visitors will place an even higher value on sustainable travel, seeking Alaska’s wild open spaces, natural beauty, and traditional cultures as a safe travel experience.
Alaska’s tourism industry has been devastated by COVID-19, but we are resilient. Tourism can help lead Alaska toward economic recovery while keeping the safety of Alaskans and our visitors top of mind — with the help and support of our elected officials — and all Alaskans.
Sarah Leonard is the president and CEO of Alaska Travel Industry Association.
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