Travel association advocates for Alaskans to travel, but for communities off the road system it might be a 'hard sell'
The sky above Ketchikan is quiet, devoid of the constant sound of floatplanes that fly south of the city on sightseeing tours.
It’s just one of the first indications that this year’s tourist season won’t be business as usual.
Many areas of Alaska boast popular travel destinations, a fact the Alaska Travel Industry Association is now promoting to locals in a Show Up For Alaska campaign highlighting ways Alaskans can take advantage of tourism in the state. But for communities off the road system, there is less hope that Alaskan tourists will replace cruise passengers.
The bulk of Alaska’s population resides in Southcentral Alaska, a demographic that rarely visits places like Ketchikan. Patti Mackey, president and CEO of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, said the city doesn’t even track numbers of Alaskans coming from outside the city — the number is too small.
“Traditionally it’s been kind of a hard sell to get folks from other parts of Alaska down here due to airfare costs, for example, and the time it takes to travel from Anchorage to Ketchikan is twice that basically of what it takes to get to Seattle due to the number of stops they have to make,” Mackey said.
As the southernmost city on Alaska’s Inside Passage, Ketchikan is usually the first stop on cruises going up Southeast Alaska. A busy ship day could almost double the size of Ketchikan’s population. Now that most major cruise lines have postponed sail dates, local businesses are left without their prime customers.
The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau surveyed local businesses asking how long they could endure a delayed restart of the tourist season. Only 27% of businesses said they could hold on till next summer without a visitor season this year.
One of those business owners is Jay Ellis, manager of Julie's Fine Jewelry and Gifts. His family started the business 30 years ago as more cruise ships started coming to Ketchikan and opening the shop became a profitable endeavor.
Now Ellis is facing an unprecedented lack of customers.
“We can make it till next May. If nothing happens next summer, we’re done for,” Ellis said. “We had to take out a bank loan, we had to mortgage our houses, everything like that to try and save our business.”
Ellis said Ketchikan is a small community, and to even stay open throughout the winter, he has to take out a bank loan and start every summer with thousands of dollars of debt. Normally, that model works because sales from tourists pay his loans and pay for 13 employees.
A born and raised Alaskan, Ellis said he hasn’t seen such an economic challenge since the Ketchikan Pulp Company shut down its mill in 1997.
“I know when the pulp mill shut down it damn near ghost towned us here,” Ellis said. “I mean when you lay off that many people in a community and people start moving out of the community, our population dropped.”
The town rebounded because of tourism, but now he says downtown looks like a ghost town again. It’s evident in the way he can walk without dodging the hundreds of tourists that normally flood the docks, a fact some locals have applauded.
“A lot of people around here are like, “Woohoo we get our town for the summer,” and they just don’t understand the trickle-down effect it’s going to have in this town,” Ellis said.
Not only will the city lose a projected $160 million in passenger spending, millions in cruise passenger vessel fees and millions in port development fees, but Ellis said small business owners like himself, who love to contribute to the community and youth sports, will no longer have the ability to do so.
While most businesses already offered local discounts in previous years, this year they’re trying to create excursions that attract locals too. Allen Marine Inc., a company based in Sitka that also runs the Allen Marine Tours and Alaska Dream Cruises, is curating excursions that appeal to locals by scheduling short 2-3 day expeditions on the weekends.
“We’re excited about it because we know a lot of Southeast Alaskans and Alaskans in general, I’ll say, have not been to places like Glacier Bay National Park or Tracy Arm,” Chief Marketing Officer at Allen Marine Tours Zak Kirkpatrick said.
The income from the tours will be supplemental at best, coming nowhere close to the record season they expected to have. The company normally employs 170 year-round and 500 seasonal workers. Because of the pandemic, they have furloughed or laid off all but 40 of those workers.
As the state opens up and reduces travel restrictions, ATIA is encouraging Alaskans to travel and is collecting Alaska resident specials on their website.
“Our industry has been significantly impacted by necessary travel restrictions around the pandemic and any support through the summer and fall for local tourism businesses is the goal behind the campaign,” Sarah Leonard, President and CEO of ATIA, said.
As part of its Show Up For Alaska campaign, ATIA is giving away five pairs of roundtrip tickets for travel anywhere in the state in a photo contest that will run throughout the summer. The state’s population is much smaller than the over 2 million tourists that were expected to visit this summer, but it’s something.
“We’re bracing for nothing,” Ellis said. “And anything we get is kind of a bonus.”