Karl seeks federal OK to pave way for Chinese charters
Bernie Karl just needs one signature to add tens of millions of dollars to Alaska’s tourism industry.
The irrepressible Fairbanks entrepreneur and former owner — it’s now employee-owned — of the popular Chena Hot Springs Resort is waiting on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to sign off on a travel visa waiver before he puts a plan into action that will bring a Boeing 787 with about 300 Chinese tourists directly to Fairbanks every week of the year, Karl said.
“This is a pilot project only good for the state of Alaska, not good for the United States; it’s only good for Alaska. That’s what we’re asking for,” he said.
The special visa would be good for 30 days and require Chinese travelers to have a nontransferable, nonrefundable round-trip ticket. It would also require the tour company consortium to post a $1 million bond with DHS, which, according to Karl, has been taken care of.
“We give them a bond so that there’s no doubt these people will be back on the airplane,” he said. “The big deal with Homeland Security is they want to make sure people get back on the plane and we have no problem with that.”
The reason it hasn’t been done is it can take up to six months for prospective Chinese tourists just to get an interview through the U.S. embassy for a travel visa. Conversely, Karl noted that it took him a little more than a day to get a visa good for three years for a trip to Russia.
Explore Fairbanks CEO Deb Hickok, who, along with Karl, participated in Gov. Bill Walker’s trade mission to China in late May, described the challenges a successful Chinese tour operator she talked to had in getting a visa to the U.S.
“He had to provide his marriage license, his diploma; things we’re never asked when we apply to go to China. There is this very real concern with the Department of State for anybody that may defect, so they’re very cautious,” Hickok said.
Karl quipped, “They name streets after what we do — one way.”
Travelers would be able to obtain the special Alaska visa in five days, he said.
Karl is confident the flights would be full and estimates they would have an economic impact of between $35 million and $50 million per year on the state.
Alaska visitors from Asia spend an average of $1,442 once in the state, according to the Commerce Department’s 2016 Visitor Statistics report.
“They have our money; I want it back. You want to talk about helping our (trade) debt, well this is how you do it,” he said. “You bring their money here and they want to travel and they want to come to Alaska.”
Karl and Adriel Butler, owner of Borealis Basecamp, met with Feng Bin, the primary owner of Beijing UTours and leasing agents for Hainan Airlines while on Walker’s trade mission and established a relationship that grew into the charter plans.
Beijing UTours averages 1.2 million customers per year, according to Karl.
He promptly went to Washington, D.C. after returning from China and asked the Alaska congressional delegation for help navigating DHS. Karl lauded each member of the delegation for their help. While the waiver has not been approved yet, he said Nielsen has had to cancel meetings with Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, which included a trip to the Chena Energy Fair with Murkowski in August.
Another DHS representative who came in her stead said the waiver shouldn’t be an issue, according to Karl.
Spokespersons for Sullivan and Murkowski didn’t respond to questions for this story.
Confident he and his partners will get the visa waiver, Karl said more Chinese visitors could be in Alaska in about a month.
“All the legwork’s been done,” he said.
He highlighted the opportunity the Chinese market presents Alaska’s tourism industry, with its 300 million-strong middle class, which Hickok said is expected to hit 600 million by 2020.
Explore Fairbanks signed a business partnership with East West Marketing Crop. while Hickok was on the trade trip.
She said aurora viewing is the primary attraction for Chinese visitors to Fairbanks, as is the case with Korean and Japanese tourists, but noted those that come to Alaska during the summer months are obviously here for other reasons.
Karl said he pitched the state as “the world’s largest oxygen bar” while in China.
“You come to Alaska to get healthy. You come to Alaska to breathe our oxygen. It’s the world’s largest oxygen bar and let me tell you China has problems with breathable oxygen,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the visa waiver, Hickok noted that Alaska, and Fairbanks in particular, has greatly increased connectivity to East Asia. Alaska Airlines has a new partnership with Hainan Airlines and Delta Airlines, with its international routes, now flies daily to the Interior.
She said airport space is hard to come by in Beijing, but the charters could originate from most any major city in China.
Karl sees them as the beginning of much more travel between Alaska and China.
“It’s just an unbelievable opportunity for the future of Alaska. Our real future is in selling nature, but you get to keep it,” he said.
“It’s the damndest thing.”
As if potentially bringing roughly 15,000 new visitors to Alaska isn’t enough, Karl added that he’s confident he can use the extra 30,000 pounds of cargo capacity in a 787 to export Alaska seafood through relationships he has with processors.
“There’s no problem getting all the king crab and all the salmon I want to go on the plane. It just makes sense that the plane leaves full,” he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].