U.S. urged to invest in Tongass tourism industry

Tongass National Forest in Wrangell, Alaska.
Tongass National Forest in Wrangell, Alaska. Photo Credit: State of Alaska/Blaine Harrington III
Renee Brincks
Renee Brincks

As the Associated Press and Juneau Empire reported this month, nearly 50 parties in Southeast Alaska have requested additional funding and support for visitor-serving businesses in the Tongass National Forest.

Their open letter to Congress and U.S. Forest Service leadership cited a 42% decline in Tongass recreation program investments at the federal level, which the letter's author linked to staffing shortages, permitting delays, stalled infrastructure development and lost public access opportunities.  

This comes at a record-setting time for regional tourism.

"The people, wildlife, public lands and waterways of Southeast Alaska draw more than 1 million people from around the world each year to the small and remote communities of Alaska, driving over $1 billion in economic activity and 21% of regional employment, the largest source of private sector employment," states the letter's introduction, drawing from 2016 McDowell Group research.

Numbers from the Southeast Conference underscore that economic impact. Formed in 1958 to promote strong economies, healthy communities and a quality environment in Southeast Alaska, the coalition includes 180 member organizations representing 1,200 people from 32 regional communities.

The group's September 2017 "Southeast Alaska by the Numbers" report, prepared by Rain Coast Data, says that 1.5 million air, ferry and cruise passengers visited from outside the region in 2016. That represents a 3.7% increase over 2015. While 70% arrived by cruise ship, a gain of three percent over the previous year, airline traffic was also up 5%.

This is also the first time that tourism has surpassed seafood as the area's top private-sector industry in terms of both jobs and wages. Visitor-industry employment has grown by 32% here since 2010, says the Southeast Conference report. While tourism wages are the lowest wages of any sector in the region, those working in the industry earned $229 million in 2016  that's 11% of all regional employment income.

In their letter to federal representatives, Southeast businesses asked the Forest Service to create a forest-wide regional recreation plan that identifies specific recreation infrastructure needs of communities, industry and the public. They also requested that officials prioritize diverse recreation opportunities, and direct and fund initiatives related to those opportunities.


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