The southeast Alaska community of Skagway welcomed more than 1 million travelers in 2019. Expecting an even stronger summer in 2020, officials prepared to tackle traffic control and related challenges. Then, of course, everything changed.
"Suddenly, our summer days looked very much like winters, when you can walk down the street and not see a single person or car," said Wendy Anderson, spokeswoman for the Skagway Visitor Department.
Community members got creative, painting social-distancing decals on sidewalks and updating infrastructure to improve parks. Skagway Brewing staged bands on a balcony and offered open-air seating on a closed street. Local artists submitted proposals for a new mural park, transforming a neighborhood playground into a destination that invites visitors to explore beyond the downtown cruise ship docks. Citizens and the mayor also teamed up on the Save Our Skagway (SOS) program, which drew friends, family members and former Skagway residents into town.
Now, the community is using that SOS model to address employee shortages.
"We're tapping into our Skagway alumni network and saying, 'Hey, remember the fun you had when you were 25 and spent a season working in Skagway? Tell your kid to come up.' We can re-create that Skagway-summer-camp-for-adults experience for the next generation," Anderson said.
While it's too early to measure the impact on job applications, the campaign is generating interest in seasonal opportunities.
Exploring a road less traveled
As Anderson and her colleagues plan for this summer, they've also noticed an uptick in information requests from Canadian travelers navigating Covid protocols and border-crossing rules. The tourism team expanded its outreach to roadtrippers, adventure enthusiasts and independent travelers, as well.
"We got very reliant upon all those cruise ship visitors. The pandemic brought home the fact that our RV traffic, our independent traffic and the folks who come and spend that week at a B&B also add so much to our community and to Skagway's economic health," Anderson said.
Cruise ships brought 1.3 million travelers to Alaska in 2019, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association. That same year, the state saw 790,900 visitors arrive by air, while 90,500 accessed the state by highway or by ferry.
Alaska's air traffic returned to near-2019 levels last year. In 2022, the association expects independent travelers to visit the state at rates similar to or higher than 2021.
A December estimate from CLIA Alaska put the state's 2022 cruise capacity at 1.5 million visitors.
A lack of cruise traffic kept some large south-central Alaska properties closed in 2020 and 2021, and visitor-serving business scrambled to adjust. Salmon Berry Travel and Tours filled gaps by managing visitor operations at Independence Mine State Historical Park, for example, while local lodges and guiding outfits teamed up on new packages for independent travelers.
Visitors in Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo Credit: Tom Bol and Mat-Su CVB
The Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), which promotes Palmer, Talkeetna and other communities between Anchorage and Denali National Park and Preserve, directed its 2020 marketing efforts toward in-state and independent travelers. The organization also expanded resources for members seeking pandemic aid or addressing workforce challenges.
"That summer, businesses were focused on surviving, rather than succeeding," said Casey Ressler, communications manager for the Mat-Su CVB.
Some operators welcomed an estimated 10% of their 2019 visitors in 2020, he added. Last year, select companies jumped to about 75% of their typical traffic.
"Some operators who focus on independent traffic had record seasons last year," Ressler said. "A lot of those businesses were up the Glenn Highway, in the Matanuska Glacier area and along that corridor. Even when cruise travelers are here, they're usually not going up there on a package tour."
Mat-Su Valley hospitality businesses see promise in the year ahead, thanks to healthy summer bookings and the planned return of cruise ships to south-central Alaska. New Canadian government guidelines that require a 100% vaccination rate for vessels visiting the country's ports could present challenges; still, the valley's tourism officials remain optimistic.
"There's a lot of demand. People want to travel, and after a couple of quiet years, I think they're even more anxious to go," Ressler said. "We're pros at social distancing, and we've been doing it for a while. That's been part of our messaging: Alaska is that wide-open destination."