Southeast Conference recently surveyed its membership as to strategies for recovering from the COVID-19 economic crisis during a gathering timed to occur during the legislative session.

The conference, which consists of regional stakeholders in the economy, conducted the survey as a prelude to the Southeast 2025 Economic Plan it intends to complete by April.

This review involved Southeast Alaskans representing 16 communities and 18 industries, with about 250 written comments being submitted.

The Southeast region endured the hardest economic hit of all Alaska regions. The region lost 12% (or 4,350) of its annualized jobs between 2019 and 2020. When comparing June and July 2019 to the same months in 2020, the loss came to 19%, largely because cruise ships weren’t allowed to sail between American ports, nor out of British Columbia due to the coronavirus. The ships are responsible for 90% of the region’s tourism industry.

As it turned out, Southeast’s salmon fishery proved disastrous in 2020, as well, and the region had lost 20% of its state jobs over the past eight years.

The region experienced similar job loss when the timber industry collapsed in the late 1990s and early 2000’s. That occurred in tandem with a decline in salmon prices, and the region recorded 4,200 fewer jobs.

The business respondents to the survey indicated that the approach to the pandemic fallout has ranged from diversifying (taking on new clients, developing new products and expanding markets) to endorsing virus vaccinations, cutting costs, applying for federal dollars, encouraging local spending and hiring, deferring debt, advocating for a waiver to the Passenger Vessel Services Act and preparing for the return of cruise ships.

Information provided by Southeast Conference shows that cruise ships will have a capacity of 1.58 million passengers in the 2022 season.

Community leaders exclusive of businesses responded that they prioritize COVID-19 mitigation, followed by economic planning, building infrastructure in anticipation of the cruise ships’ return, pursuing independent travelers for the 2021 season, accepting federal dollars, budgeting for reduced revenue, and supporting local businesses.

The top four immediate concerns of survey respondents included vaccine distribution (71%), revitalizing air and marine transportation (67%), regrowing the visitor industry (50%) and declaring an economic disaster (49%). Ketchikan, along with a half dozen other Southeast communities, has asked for economic disaster declarations.

Among other priorities are buttressing the region’s health care system, uplifting the seafood industry, helping Alaskans faced with eviction and foreclosures as a result of the pandemic response, and strengthen child care opportunities for when the economy begins to grow again.

And, it will. The pent-up desire for travel combined with the tourism industry to meet that yearning can be expected to see record a number of travelers making their way to Southeast Alaska.

It isn’t a question of “if,” but “how soon.” Indications are beginning to show sooner than it might have been.