Presented by Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau
It’s the year of the great Alaska staycation.
Between high prices for some flights and hotels, a national rental car shortage, concerns about unvaccinated children and other COVID-related travel considerations, many Alaskans are opting for in-state getaways that offer more flexibility -- and, of course, unlimited mask-free social distancing in the Great Land’s great outdoors.
For Alaska communities that rely on visitor business, in-state tourism has been vital for the last year and a half. To ensure Alaskans can safely and comfortably explore the adventure available in their own backyards, one Southcentral city started laying the groundwork for all-seasons COVID safety more than a year ago.
Safe adventure close to home
After last year’s uncertainty, business owners in the Prince William Sound port community of Valdez are starting to feel like there’s hope on the horizon.
“They’re pretty optimistic,” said Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sharon Anderson. “Folks are looking at the season that they had this summer -- I don’t think that they expected it to be so successful or for so many visitors to come to Valdez. A lot of the business owners are very happy for that, after 2020.”
In 2019, after completing a multimillion-dollar renovation of its commercial harbor and cruise ship terminal, the Port of Valdez welcomed back its first large cruise ships since the early 2000s. Last summer was expected to be a banner year for visitors… and then the pandemic hit.
“There was supposed to be a very large increase in 2020, but that didn’t happen because of COVID,” Anderson said.
The COVID cloud came with a silver lining, however: Alaskans have been getting out and enjoying the state, exploring new destinations and doing their social distancing in the mountains, on the water and along the trails.
“Last year the visitor numbers were really down in Valdez,” Anderson said. This year, “they are much higher than business owners expected.”
At the same time, Valdez has managed to keep case counts relatively low -- as of August 2021, just eight residents and two out-of-state visitors had been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
The small number of serious cases is likely due in part to Valdez’s population, which hovers around 4,000, but there are two more important factors. Along with a strong community response to the pandemic, Valdez is tailor-made for social distancing.
Four-season outdoor fun
It’s well-established at this point: When it comes to COVID, outside is the safest place to be. As it happens, in Valdez, outside is generally the absolute best place to be -- and a (literal) breath of fresh air for the mask-weary.
“I think people are enjoying the outdoors,” Anderson said. “We’re kind of wide open. There aren’t a lot of people around, and there is hiking to do, and biking, (and) you can do them at a safe distance.”
Nestled into a sheltered port at the base of the central Chugach Mountains, Valdez rose to international prominence in the 1990s as one of the world’s top destinations for extreme skiing. While the area has earned its place in all those Warren Miller films, year-round Valdez adventure isn’t just for the adventurous.
“We have different levels of outdoors,” Anderson said.
The slopes of Thompson Pass offer hardcore hiking and backcountry skiing, but there are plenty of ways for visitors of all ages to get outdoors, with or without an adrenaline surge. Meals Hill is a favorite local spot for a short hike with a gentle incline, 360-degree views of the town, and late-summer blueberry picking. Nearby Ruth Pond is stocked with rainbow trout, perfect for casual fishing and picnics.
You don’t even have to leave downtown to get outdoors. Valdez is woven throughout with a network of paved, bike- and stroller-friendly trails.
“Folks are spending more time biking and seeing things around town,” Anderson said. While biking has been a favorite pandemic activity all over the U.S., Valdez has seen a boom especially in the popularity of electric bikes, or e-bikes, which make it easy for riders of all ages to travel longer distances -- out to Valdez Glacier Lake, say, for some kayak paddling, or over to the Solomon Gulch Hatchery to watch for wildlife.
“Fall is coming up, and so (is) the changing of the colors,” Anderson said. “It’s not just the destination, but part of the experience is the drive. You’re kind of changing seasons, going from Anchorage to Glennallen to Valdez.”
As autumn cools into winter, Valdez becomes one of Alaska’s top destinations for outdoor adventure. The trail system is groomed for cross-country skiers and fat-tire bikers, and the mountains beckon thrill-seekers and bunny slopers alike.
“Our winter season is filled with a lot of skiers and snowboarders,” Anderson said. Cross-country skis, snowshoes and trekking gear are available for checkout from the Prince William Sound College Health and Fitness Center, making Valdez a great destination for first-time skiers who want to give it a try without making a big investment.
Winter in Valdez lingers well into spring, and the combination of sunshine and abundant snow makes it a favorite destination for late-season skiing, ice climbing and snowmachining.
“When spring is coming up, that’s when, a lot of places, winter is on the downhill, but that’s when Valdez springs to life,” Anderson said. “You have some sunny days on some really heavy snow.”
Like many communities, early in the pandemic the City of Valdez established a unified command to set up testing, contact tracing and public information efforts -- but the work didn’t stop there. An economic relief initiative quickly set up a three-phase plan to help businesses and residents weather the financial storm. The city set up a review and approval process to make sure community events had strong mitigation plans in place. Representatives from across the community came together on COVID-specific task forces focused on fisheries, tourism and mental health.
“Essentially, Valdez did what Valdez does best,” the city’s COVID-19 community updates website explains. “We came together quickly to support and take care of each other.”
Now the community is in “COVID-conscious” mode, according to Anderson. Extra disinfection and surface wipe-downs have become routine around Valdez as they have around the country. Employees who experience cold or flu symptoms quarantine at home until a negative test result clears them to return to work.
“I think people are feeling safe in the restaurants and businesses,” Anderson said. “They’re paying attention to their staff and making sure that if they’re not feeling well, they’re not at work.” After last year’s challenging visitor season, she added, owners are being extra conscientious to ensure their employees and clients stay safe: “It’s not worth it to have your business shut down.”
The city has also made it easy for customers to seek out businesses that have invested in strong health and safety protocols. The Valdez COVID Conscious Business Program recognizes local stores, restaurants, tour operators and other businesses that have completed a rigorous inventory of steps like educating employees, writing COVID mitigation plans, and providing for physical distancing, contactless transactions, and other practices to keep employees and customers safe. Certified COVID-conscious businesses can be identified by window signs. As the weather cools, restaurants and other spots are making plans to ensure customers can dine and shop with confidence, no matter the season.
“A lot of the restaurants have outdoor seating, more so than they did in the past,” Anderson said. “I think a lot of businesses are going to keep that up.”
Planning an Alaska staycation
With the delta variant circulating in Alaska, travelers are advised to continue exploring the state with health in mind. Even if your entire family is vaccinated, visitors to Valdez should continue to do “the basic things that you do for your safety,” Anderson said.
“Bring your masks along,” she said. “Some of us adults think, ‘Great, COVID is over for us,’ but we have to think about (the fact that) there are a lot of younger kids that are still vulnerable.” The Visitors Center and some other COVID-conscious businesses have free masks available for those who forgot to pack them.
Masks and hand sanitizer aren’t the only things visitors need to think about when planning a Valdez getaway. As is the case nationwide, many businesses are operating with scaled-back staffing, and tours, accommodations and charters have been booking out earlier than usual.
“Make sure that you have a reservation for a place to stay,” Anderson said. “You really do need to make sure that you have your hotel or AirBnB reservation made.”
While most Alaskans who visit Valdez come by car, air transportation is available, and between the trail system, the size of the town, and the availability of human-powered transportation, the national rental car shortage isn’t stopping visitors from seeing all there is to see.
“Valdez is a pretty small town, so if you do arrive by airplane, you are able to walk around the downtown area easier than other places, and you’re not missing out on anything,” Anderson said. “It’s (all) within walking distance.”
In one more bit of good news, 2021 saw the return of Valdez’s favorite local events, gatherings like the Valdez Ice Climbing Festival (February), the Fat Bike Festival (April), the Valdez Fly-In (May), Gold Rush Days (August), and summer fishing derbies. Many were canceled in 2020, but with approved health and safety plans in place, they were successfully staged this year -- and in 2022, the calendar is already starting to fill with events and celebrations where Alaska visitors can safely experience all the fun and flavor of Valdez.
“Everything is on,” Anderson said.
Presented by the Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau. Get your free Valdez vacation guide at ValdezAlaska.org.
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.