This past weekend’s visit to Ketchikan by U.S. Department of Commerce officials was a welcome opportunity for federal decision-makers to escape the Washington, D.C., bubble and experience a community that’s affected by federal decisions in many ways.
Recent editions of the Daily News have had stories of some of the events and topics discussed during the visit, including Saturday’s round-table discussion with federal, state and local officials. One subject touched upon briefly during the event was tourism.
Commerce Department Chief of Staff and General Counsel Mike Walsh Jr. raised the subject first when talking about positive economic signs as the nation tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Walsh noted that an encouraging long-term economic indicator is the current U.S. savings rate.
“In June, Americans saved 19% of their personal income at an annualized rate of $3.4 trillion,” Walsh said. “When we finally get out from under this virus, Americans will be in a position to spend these savings, and we should experience an immediate lift in the travel, tourism and entertainment industries.”
He added that Commerce staff “anticipates a rapid recovery of the cruise industry — bookings are extremely strong for next year and the industry is using the word ‘astonishing’ to describe the pent-up demand for cruises.”
All of which, of course, would be wonderful. But the Alaska perspective, grounded in some hard truths, provided Walsh with some nuance regarding expectations for the return of tourism in Ketchikan and The Last Frontier.
Later in the round table event, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said Alaska’s tourism sector has immediate challenges, as has the industry in other states.
“I know that there's other communities, other states, that have been hammered on the tourism side,” Sullivan said. “What I'm worried about most for our state that makes us a little unique is, you know, tourism starts to come back in Florida or starts to come back in Nevada .., they can kind of get back on it right away.
“Our tourism season is relatively short and it's almost over, and then we're going to have to wait a whole another ... nine months,” he continued. “And I think that makes us in many ways more vulnerable.”
That waiting period is largely because of the way the season for cruise ships — which bring the majority of visitors to Alaska — traditionally occurs only in the late spring and summer months. And Alaska — Ketchikan in particular — doesn’t have roaded or easy roaded access to large populations of potential visitors. We rely on air, ferry and cruise ship transportation.
“Senator, you did bring up a good point and that's our reliance on various modes of transportation to get our visitors and our residents in and out,” said Patti Mackey, CEO of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.
Mackey highlighted that the Alaska Marine Highway System is experiencing many challenges that are resulting in dwindling service.
Regarding cruise ships, “I was very happy to hear that you (Walsh) feel confident that we're going to have cruises back, since that has been pretty much what the community has staked itself in — providing services to the cruise industry and the passengers,” Mackey said. “But unfortunately, we have so many outside agencies that are going to make those decisions.”
She cited concern about the Centers for Disease Control’s decision to open up a comment period regarding cruise industry reopening to the “entire country.”
“I hope that they can be thoughtful about the responses they get,” she said.
In addition, COVID-19 has affected the air travel, as well.
“COVID is probably the biggest challenge that our industry faces,” said Mackey. “And, as I said, it's not for lack of anything that the industry is doing. It's just so many things out of our reach.
“So, we do not predict the fast return of the business, as much as we would like to believe that we'll see a lot of ships back,” she continued. “We believe that we will see limited capacity on those ships in the next year or two. And as the senator heard yesterday during some meetings, a lot of our retailers and industry people believe they're going to have to do whatever it takes to survive until 2022. Simply because the numbers, we don't believe, are going to expand as quickly back as we would like.
“... If you're not a roaded area where people can just drive over from the next state over, you're probably going to see a longer time before we can really say that our industry has recovered,” Mackey said.
Walsh responded that he didn’t disagree with the challenges that Mackey identified.
“I think the way I will say it is folks really want to get back up there and start traveling and going around and doing the things that they used to do,” Walsh said. “So, we've got a bit of a chicken or egg issue, but once that happens, I do think that you in particular are primed for, hopefully, a bit better of a recovery than what you were predicting there.”
He said he’d heard about Alaska’s coronavirus testing at the airport and the rapid-testing capabilities available in Ketchikan. If the cruise industry would support these types of strategies, “it will get folks on those boats quicker than they otherwise would.”
“I think Alaska's requirements to get tested before they come in, some may find it to be onerous, but it does give people a sense of comfort — both when they get the test saying that they're negative, and arriving in Alaska and knowing that everyone, instances of the virus, … are under control,” Walsh said. “I think that will hopefully accelerate the return.”
The discussion was illustrative of the value of having officials visit Ketchikan. Most high-ranking officials in broad-responsibility agencies such as the Commerce Department are not subject-matter experts in things such as, say, the tourism sector in Ketchikan and Alaska.
When they visit, we not only get to hear their views, but they can hear from local people who have deep expertise in their fields and full understandings of the community, region and state.
Mackey is one of those people. Our hope is that Mr. Walsh carefully considers what she said.
Alaska and Ketchikan have some unique circumstances, and the issues involved with reviving the travel industry here are large and complex. We’re not expecting a magic-wand, flipped-switch immediate return to how things were. We need federal, state and local governments that work to understand the nuances, and effectively work together to assist in the recovery.