As industries across the country start the recovery process after being financially pummeled by COVID-19, one sector in particular has been hit tremendously hard: tourism.
In Alaska, tourism revenue is a significant economic pillar – number three, in fact, behind oil and commercial fishing. A consistent influx of visitors in summer and throughout the year to our port-of-call cities, scenic national parks and trails, and remote Alaskan destinations generates money spent in restaurants, breweries, on tours and lodging, all of which employs Alaskans and propels growth. Also, keep in mind those businesses that support tourism business but are not directly in tourism; fuel, maintenance, supplies, and services are just a few that also feel the lack of visitors this year.
In 2019, tourism employed 1 in 9 Anchorage jobs and 1 in 10 statewide (52,000 peak jobs); employee earnings were up to $1.4 billion in labor income; visitor spending was up to $2.8 billion for a total economic impact of $4.5 billion, according to the most recent statistics from Visit Anchorage and Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA).
No doubt, the statewide tourism industry was going strong as 2019 broke many records and 2020 was expected to have a 6 percent increase in cruise ship passengers alone according to the Alaska Economic Trends projections from the state. Then Coronavirus happened.
The pandemic has made traveling next to impossible, and at the least, largely unsafe. It forced closures across the industry, from local eateries to globally recognizable sites, such as Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. The Park has suspended issuance of climbing permits for any expeditions attempting an ascent of Denali or Mount Foraker for the 2020 mountaineering season. And, of course, it has left many unemployed, with a huge portion of unemployment claims coming from those in the leisure and hospitality sectors.
Now, as we look toward reopening, it’s time to recognize why and how tending to the wounds of the tourism industry will be critical for recovery.
Julie Saupe, President and CEO of Visit Anchorage shared her perspective.
“Alaska tourism has a long road back to recovery,” Saupe said. “While we may be tired of hearing it, we ARE in this together and businesses and consumers both have a role to play. We need to be smart in our individual actions and we need to be thoughtful and spend in ways that have an eye to the future of our city and our state.”
For consumers, this is easy enough. Most of us are eager to get back to our favorite restaurants or drive south to Seward or north to Talkeetna to enjoy some summer sun. But how can the countless small business owners who live and work in Alaska get involved?
- Make sure you have updated all of your business information in the many places it may appear (your website, on your outgoing phone messages, on online listing or advertising with trade and business associations, etc.). More than ever, potential customers may be unsure if your hours or offerings have changed: Provide potential customers confidence that the information they find about your business is current.
- Watch your data. Guest and visitor behavior and demographics may be shifting for your businesses due to COVID-19. Be sure to observe your current guests with a new eye. Collect data if you are able, especially date-related trends and information around how your guests found you and their motivation to book your product or service or visit your store.
- Share referrals and share guests with other businesses; this can be a formal partner and packaging agreement or an informal referral to customers/guests while they are in your business or booking online or by phone.
- Provide deals, and remember that a deal does not have to be a discount. Businesses can provide a behind-the-scenes experience or a meet and greet with a local VIP or celebrity, a value-added upgrade to a meal option or wild-flower bouquet on arrival for lodging guests.
Recovery will be slow, but all hope is not lost. Yes, in Alaska, our COVID-19 cases recently have been on the incline, but the silver lining is this: People want to travel. Looking ahead, we anticipate visitors will want Alaska’s wild, wide-open spaces. They are looking for safe, relaxing, memorable, and uncrowded experiences.
Sarah Leonard, President and CEO of ATIA said, “As an industry that welcomes a majority of out-of-state and international visitors, we are highly impacted by national and international conditions. The reality for many, many tourism businesses in Alaska this summer is a challenging one. People in Alaska want to and can visit places right here at home that perhaps they have never visited before, learn more about Alaska art and culture, explore our public lands and experience Alaska’s wild, open spaces. We can do all this and support local tourism business owners. Our industry developed operating protocols and guidelines for tourism businesses to help keep our visitors, our employees, and our communities safe as we reopen.”
In the meantime, we are encouraging Alaskans to Show Up for Alaska and support local businesses as they explore our state this summer. We encourage businesses to share their local travel specials on our www.showupforAlaska.com microsite, which is supported through the generous contributions of several local companies trying to help their industry and support Alaska tourism.
Keeping others safe and the infection rate down continues to be the highest priority. But, as we welcome more traveling, it will be critical business owners actively participate. Remember: enhance your visibility, communicate your new experiences, and connect within your local communities to help funnel visitor spending back into Alaska.