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With few Outsiders, tourism businesses look in-state

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Elizabeth Earl
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This year has been a rough one for tourism businesses everywhere, but especially in Alaska.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, very few out of state visitors are coming. Alaska relies heavily on them for its summer tourism season. There are only about 731,000 of us, while more than two million out of state tourists arrive every year, the majority of them by cruise ships. But without them, regions of the state are lobbying for those in-state tourists to come and salvage some of the season.   

The Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council is leading the charge to try to attract some of those in-state tourists to come down to the peninsula. Executive director Debbie Speakman says so far, it’s working pretty well.

"Weekends are packed," she said. "Weekends are booked solid, which is great, but our weekend warriors are not extending. We did have a little bit of a bump for Fourth of July, when people take a longer weekend, and I think because of all the people heading to Anchorage, you heard all the news on Sundays, just from Soldotna taking four or five hours to get to Anchorage, so people did extend. Weekends are great, but after that, Alaskans can have the peninsula to themselves again."

Peninsula residents are used to crowded roads pretty much every day from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but while there are still crowds, they’re often confined to weekends right now. That’s a little hard for businesses to plan for, and people’s behavior is different. Speakman says lodges and BnBs are still down, while campgrounds are exploding.

"Campgrounds, however, are just seeing massive increase, especially the city-run or state-run," she said. "And you're seeing the news of how badly they’re being treated. So that is definitely a concern. But because people are camping, they are bringing a lot of their own supplies and they’re not spending as much."

Speakman says KPTMC started marketing in-state early, first by encouraging Alaskans to enjoy their local communities. Then, as the travel restrictions lifted, they expanded their marketing to other regions of the state, lobbying for more Anchorage and Fairbanks tourists. Speakman says that has earned a little lashback, though, with people concerned about tourists bringing the coronavirus with them to infect local communities.
Some businesses are adapting to the curve, offering Alaskan specials, hoping to recover some of the cost of operating. But one of the concerns is what will happen in the future—after the summer winds down and when the government aid runs out. Speakman says KPTMC is trying to figure out how to help tourism businesses in the fall and into the winter, when money runs thin. With workforce thin and many businesses small, she says there’s a risk of burnout this year, too.

"When you have an owner-operator working 24 hours a day, just trying to keep the door open, and on top of that trying to become grantwriters, trying to get any help they can from the SBA, the EIDL loans, PPP, there's some burnout," she said. "And in these small towns, it’s becoming very hard to call people back for work when they’re making more than the businesses could ever pay them."\

That's been the case for Ninilchik, which has lost out significantly this year due to the  coronavirus. First, out-of-state tourists began cancelling booking en masse in the spring. Then, the organizers of Salmonfest, which takes place at the Ninilchik Fair Grounds, announced the festival's cancellation. Then, last week, the Kenai Peninsula Fair board announced the cancellation of the 2020 fair, though the board is still hoping to go forward with some kind of scaled-back event.

Debbie Cary with the Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce says business owners in Ninilchik are seeing weekend traffic, like everyone else, but the future's pretty unclear. Some charter operators are just hoping to break even, she says, but no one really knows what the fall and winter will look like. Some businesses depended on those bookings from the fair and Salmonfest to get them through, she says.

Many are looking to the Kenai Peninsula Borough's CARES grant relief program, which is due to open for applications next week, for relief, and to the state. She says many of them are just finding out information about the programs now and business owners are already too busy trying to run the day-to-day operations, let alone reading about grants and filling out paperwork.

In the meantime, Cary says Ninilchik is open for business and visitors this summer.

One avenue for relief is the Alaska CARES act, the statewide pandemic relief through the Legislature. However, there are a number of problems with it. On Tuesday, tourism businesses from all over the state testified to the Legislature about it, asking them to amend it and broaden the eligibility.

Alaska Travel Industry Association President and CEO Sarah Leonard told the House Labor and Commerce Committee that survey data the organization gathered showed about a third of the businesses that answered said they were at risk of closing in the next few months without additional support past the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Impact Disaster Loan programs. Right now, small businesses who received those loans over a certain amount aren't eligible for AK CARES funds.

"Now it's July, and while the PPP and EIDL programs were a lifeline of support earlier, many businesses and organizations were looking to the state CARES Act grants, not just to fill a gap anymore, but for survival this year," Leonard said. "The tourism industry overall has tried to do right by our friends, our neighbors and our communities through this unprecedented pandemic. We are accountable for providing safe experiences to guests, and should be accountable for any financial support. However, I believe the goal should be to provide as much support as possible to as many businesses and organizations that are challenged today to keep their businesses.

The Legislature has to go back to Juneau to pass any changes to the Alaska CARES Act, and so far has not committed to doing so. The applications are significantly backlogged, with 90 percent of the applications yet to be processed, according to Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, who chaired the  committee meeting Tuesday. The committee is scheduled to hear from the state and from Credit Union 1, which is processing the applications, next Tuesday afternoon.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.

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