By Gov. Mike Dunleavy
Alaskans have been through it all: earthquakes, fires, floods and landslides. For the past year, our communities, businesses, families and friends have weathered the everyday challenges of living in the Last Frontier while simultaneously managing a global pandemic.
On all fronts, we worked together. We showed the nation how to manage a pandemic while still having an economy and a society. Even today, Alaska is a leader in many of the critical pandemic health metrics, including hospitalizations, COVID-19 testing and fully vaccinated citizens.
We organized a safe summer fishing season in some of the most remote parts of North America without triggering a single community outbreak. Our oil, mining and construction industries conducted successful, labor-intensive operations while protecting their workers and local residents.
Alaska did it right; Alaskans, working together, did what was asked of them to protect each other, their communities and our economy. We followed the science, and the results speak for themselves.
But the road to recovery will not be short. No one has been hit harder than the 2,180 businesses and dozens of communities that make up Alaska’s $4.5 billion tourism industry. In Ketchikan, over half of local businesses reported a 75 to 100% loss of income in 2020. Skagway saw 27% of its population move away. Even Denali and the Interior have been severely impacted by the global slowdown and the ongoing cruise ban.
The reasons are many: demand shock from tourists concerned about travel safety, the closure of the Canadian border preventing RV trips, and of course, the federal ban on cruise sailings. The latter is expected to deliver a staggering blow of more than $3 billion to Alaska’s economy for the second year in a row.
Behind those dollars are people: Alaskans with dreams who dared to open a shop, put people to work and provide something unique and wonderful to the place they call home. None of this was their fault.
I’ll continue battling for our cruise season. Across the globe, 400,000 tourists have sailed since last July with only 50 cases of COVID being discovered. As former FDA Director Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently stated, safe cruising is possible. A second year of shutdowns is not supported by science.
But we can’t wait around for the CDC to do the right thing. This is an unprecedented disaster that continues to reverberate to this day. This is about whole sectors of our economy on the brink. Large scale assistance is warranted to get our economy back on track.
The recently passed American Rescue Plan Act recognizes the roll the federal government played in amplifying this economic disaster and contains $1 billion in aid that Alaska’s government has significant discretion to spend. Those recovery dollars should go where the need is greatest.
I’m proposing legislation directing $150 million of those funds toward broad, tourism-related relief. My expectation is that this revitalization effort will include grants to affected businesses, local community and harbor support and tourism incentives for travelers. It’s important that we mix direct relief with a vigorous effort to drive tourism toward our most heavily impacted regions and communities. Nothing beats getting customers back in the doors.
Secondly, my administration is launching a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign with the goal of reaching every home in America. We want the rest of the country to know what we know: that Alaska is not just an otherworldly beautiful place, but the people are what make it so wonderful. If ever there was a time to discover Alaska, to invest in the experience of a lifetime and meet some of the best people on the planet, the time is now.
Finally, we’re opening vaccine eligibility to all tourists who want one. Soon, you’ll be able to fly to Alaska and receive a free vaccination at our major airports. Americans are all in this together, and Alaska is blessed to be able to help our neighbors. It’s my hope this will spur additional travel as we chalk up another national “first” thanks to your hard work.
Alaskans weathered the storm. They kept the ship afloat in the heavy swells and stabilized the craft. But we’re not home yet. Now is the time for a strong tourism recovery plan and a united front in support of our tourism-based communities. Together, we can overcome these headwinds and bring Alaska safely to port.
Mike Dunleavy is the 12th governor of Alaska.