There’s hope on the horizon for the tourism in Southeast Alaska, but the industry is likely to take years to recover, representatives from the travel, hospitality and cruise industries said.
Industry panelists told Southeast Conference’s Annual Meeting Thursday morning they had been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of them are ready to start work again.
The panel opened with an advertisement recently produced by Travel Alaska titled “Alaska Will Wait,” which tells viewers Alaska’s travel industry will be ready to receive them once they are able to come.
“We voluntarily stopped all sailing in March,” said Charlie Ball, Vice President of Land Operations and Customer Service for Holland America Group. “The cruise industry has never shut down before. We didn’t know how to do it, and because of the complexities of COVID it took a long time.”
It was only in August the company was able to finish returning their many thousands of employees to the 150 different countries from which they came, Ball said.
Industry group Cruise Lines International Association recently released a set of guidelines for cruise travel during the pandemic. Ball said he hoped those guidelines could serve as a starting point for shaping better health mitigation policies and be a pathway to resuming cruise ship tourism in North America. Most of the fleets were at rest but some companies had started to run limited cruises in Southern Europe between Italy and Greece, Ball said.
Now was the time, he said, to “get an oar in the water, see what the customer reaction to the strictest guidelines are.”
The guidelines, Ball stressed, would “evolve tremendously” as the industry developed better responses to different scenarios related to viral outbreaks among passengers. Gradually reducing regulations would help restore confidence in the cruise industry, Ball said, but there are still difficulties in attracting tourists to a restricted travel experience.
“The time we spend now is not necessarily what the final result is,” Ball said, adding that once stricter regulations had been tried out, “then we can start on the where we want to go.”
However, rapidly changing regulations have made it difficult for businesses to stay compliant, said Carol Fraser of Aspen Hotels. She was critical of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention No Sail Order issued April 9, saying the industry was able to safely manage a resumption of travel.
“The industry has stepped up, and they’re ready to sail,” she said, citing sailings in Europe. “America, the CDC, need to recognize that.”
Though travel is certainly down, said Patty Mackey of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, tourists still came to Alaska this summer which she said speaks to the allure of the state as a destination.
One smaller, adventure cruise company did end up operating in Southeast this summer but had to cut its first sailing short after someone onboard received positive test results for COVID-19 shortly after departure. The company running the tour, Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures, canceled the remainder of its scheduled tours after the outbreak.
The early end of the Legislature this year left many items unfinished, meaning less state money to promote travel in Alaska, Mackey said. But said she hopes for the continued cooperation of local, state and federal governments would help the industry with funding to market the state.
Mackey said the tourism industry recovery would take much longer than other sectors, and predicted it taking two to five years for the state to get back to pre-COVID-19 tourist numbers.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.