Tourism operators across Alaska ponder how to salvage season

  • A motor home makes its way along the Sterling Highway past Tern Lake near Cooper Landing. After losing a large portion of last season because of the Swan Lake fire, Kenai Peninsula tourism operators along with counterparts across the state are pondering how to salvage a season amid travel restrictions and cruise cancelations. (Photo/File/AP)

The ice is going out on the teal surface of Kenai Lake, the centerpiece of Cooper Landing and the source of the Kenai River. In a normal year, gaggles of early-season fishermen are there with their drift boats ready to take advantage of it.

After all, the local get first chance at the famous Kenai River rainbow trout, and they may not want to compete with the cosmopolitan crowds of tourists that pack the lodges, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds of the small Kenai Peninsula town from Memorial Day through the late fall.

But 2020 isn’t like most years.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of the Alaskan economy over the last two months, but perhaps none more so than the tourism industry. The summer tourism season is short but profitable across the state and particularly concentrated in Southeast and Southcentral, where many travelers head to communities like Cooper Landing to get a wilderness experience like fishing, bear viewing, or backcountry hiking.

For many of these communities, tourism is the only major industry, with year-round jobs scarce and little permanent industry in the area.

“We’re getting a couple bookings every day, but we are getting a couple cancellations every day, too,” said Bob Rima, owner of Drifter’s Lodge in Cooper Landing. “(Our clients) are from the Lower 48, and they’re unsettled. They are scared. They don’t want to fly.”

Normally booked out months ahead, Drifter’s Lodge has watched its May and June bookings dwindle. Some clients are holding out, hoping the restrictions will be relaxed and the mandatory quarantine for out-of-state travelers will be lifted, but others are cancelling or rescheduling.

For some clients, it’s the second rescheduling. Last year, heavy smoke from the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge limited business in Cooper Landing as well.

Like some other businesses, Drifter’s Lodge has chosen to stay open with the hope of some level of visitation this season. With assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARES Act providing financial relief to businesses affected by the pandemic, the lodge hired on staff and plans to continue providing services. But the program is designed to stop employers from laying off employees and so covers their pay, but only that.

Figuring out how to get employees from the Lower 48 to Alaska has been a challenge, too, as they have to quarantine when they get to the state. It’s not entirely clear who is responsible for paying for the quarantine, Rima said. Getting a loan is tough right now, too, with little to no income available with very few clients able to come, Rima said.

“This is going to be a tough year for a lot of people on the (Kenai) Peninsula for sure,” he said. “Most places, you’re lucky to have one or two months of reserves.”

There are still some bookings coming in, but there remain a lot of questions for businesses in the area. At the Inn at Tern Lake, near Moose Pass, most of the June bookings have been cancelled or moved, but some others have come in for later in the season, said Jeff Hetrick, who owns the Inn at Tern Lake near Moose Pass with his wife Rose.

“We don’t know,” he said. “We’re optimistic by nature, but we’re on standby, just like everybody else. Hopefully by 2021, we’ll be back to normal.”

Cooper Landing, with its predominantly outdoor recreation-based tourism economy, is far from alone in its economic struggle this year. Talkeetna is facing the dual hits of an anemic visitor season and the cancellation of the 2020 Denali climbing season, for which Talkeetna serves as the primary base camp.

Guides and tour companies in Girdwood, the hub for visitors at the edge of the Chugach National Forest, are facing a very slow season, and the Hotel Alyeska is temporarily closed until May 31, 2020. Operators in other communities, like Seward and Valdez, are planning for abridged seasons or are working on deals to attract Alaskans until out-of-state visitors may be able to come.

While the loss of the majority of cruise traffic has been a major hit for the communities of Southeast Alaska, the region does have its independent travelers and still hopes to see some later in the season, said Dan Kirkwood, general manager of Pack Creek Bear Tours in Juneau.

“Despite (the COVID-19) concerns, we still have this incredibly awesome state that we live in that people want to come see,” he said. “We are tracking the state mandates on mitigating the spread, and we are hopeful that we will find a way to do right by our community.”

Pack Creek Bear Tours transports clients from Juneau to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island by float plane. The company is still figuring out the logistics of how to transport and serve clients while following social distancing guidelines.

Even if the state lifted the mandatory quarantine policy and visitors were able to come again this summer, it wouldn’t be the same season it was going to be before the outbreak of the pandemic in March.

For one, the loss of the bulk of cruise ship passengers significantly scales back the number of tourists coming to the state overall; second, even if Alaska relaxes its restrictions, other states may not, and people may still not feel comfortable traveling.

Adding that to the economic harm done by the pandemic shutdowns, which will likely leave people with less disposable income to take vacations for some time, the Alaska tourism industry may have to tighten its belt for more than just this season.

Some of the members of the outdoor industry are looking for a little more support to make it through, though not just in grants. In a letter to Alaska’s congressional delegation sent in late April, a group of businesses through the Alaska Outdoor Alliance requested a $2 billion aid package spread over five years specifically targeted toward the Alaska outdoor industry.

“We know there’s a lot of furloughed employees, and we know things aren’t going to bounce back; the cruise ships aren’t coming, so they’re not going to bounce back to even last year’s levels,” said Lee Hart, the AOA’s executive director. “We just want to get people back to work, with real wages (so) that they can pay rent, buy groceries.”

Modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, an outdoor work program developed during the Great Depression, the stimulus would pay living wages to workers who worked on recreation and restoration projects in the state.

Guides and outdoor industry companies, who know their areas well and are currently short on work, would be able to use their equipment and expertise to improve trail projects in their areas while being paid for work, Hart said. The request is for the conservation corps portion to last three years and provide $750 million. The other part of the request, spread over five years, would focus on deferred maintenance projects.

The organization is looking to existing grant infrastructure for its requests to speed up the process, Hart said. In planning for the program, the federal agencies said they had desire to scale up the work if they had the funding, she said.

Kirkwood said the program’s use of local guides and operators would make sense, as they have knowledge of the areas in which they operate and a stake in the outcome. In the case of Pack Creek Bear Tours, the guides are comfortable working in close proximity to brown bears in a remote area.

“I think that’s where the local knowledge (comes in),” he said. “To a lesser extent, if your company runs a tour on the trails, then your company has a real investment in that infrastructure.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/13/2020 - 9:05am