Glitter Gulch

Glitter Gulch seen along the Parks Highway just outside the Denali National Park and Preserve entrance. The half-mile long stretch of road has boomed into a tourist haven in the past decade, now home to dozens of businesses, tour companies and hotels. Eric Engman/News-Miner 

The virus-damaged Fairbanks tourism industry has seen modest improvement over the summer, and those who work in it hope the trend continues through the winter. Even so, the improvement is far from a recovery. 

With all transportation modes suffering losses and reducing operations, and cruise season being over until spring, travel by air and by the Alaska Railroad shows the biggest hope for winter traffic, according to an analysis by the domestic marketing organization Explore Fairbanks.

After five consecutive years of growth, Fairbanks tourism mirrored the national and global downfall earlier this year. While the industry’s future remains uncertain, there is hope for the appeal of the Interior to come back, especially if travelers continue to seek getaways that allow social distancing.  

 

Travel by air

Winter air travel to Fairbanks might see an annual uptick around the holidays, one sign of which is Delta Airlines adding a second daily flight to and from Fairbanks for the week of Thanksgiving. Alaska Airlines is also slowly bringing flights back as it sees a steady increase in ticket purchases, public affairs manager Tim Thompson wrote in an email response to questions.

Passenger load improved this summer compared to spring. September turned out to be the best-performing month so far of all the down months of the pandemic, said Scott McCrea, tourism director for Explore Fairbanks. With all airlines reducing or canceling Fairbanks service, September traffic was 63% lower than in previous years but was nevertheless an improvement from declines of 71% in August and 74% in July.

The summer improvement might have been a temporary relief, said Fairbanks International Airport communications manager Melissa Stepovich.

“That was the peak season,” she said. “Our numbers went up from March in summer. It’s a different point in time now as we go through another surge of the cases nationwide, but we are hoping for the best.”

The COVID-19 safety measures airlines are taking include requiring masks, installing plexiglass shields in the airport customer service counters, allowing for touch-free boarding and reducing the passenger number on flights.

“Our number one priority is the safety of our guests and employees,” Thompson said about Alaska Airlines. “We are working in partnership with community and medical leaders, airport and state officials, and the entire tourism industry to ensure we are all doing what is best to balance an increase in visitors with protocols to protect everyone.”

Thompson said Alaska Airlines’ system walks travelers through the state of Alaska mandates around pre-flight testing or quarantine. Currently, every out-of-state traveler needs to quarantine for five days, which is less than two weeks that was required before mid-October.

McCrea said he is concerned that the restrictions might be still detrimental to winter travel.

“People come to Fairbanks in winter to see the northern lights.” he said. “Oftentimes they are not going to be here longer than five days.”

 

Travel by land

The Alaska Railroad plans to maintain its regular Aurora Winter Train, weekend service between Anchorage and Fairbanks, with additional mid-week dates in March.

Like everyone else in the travel industry, the railroad has taken a significant hit in ridership during the pandemic,said Alaska Railroad marketing manager Meghan Clemens. The passenger service did not resume until July, and in August it reduced train frequency to twice a week due to low demand. In September it went back to weekly service with a number of new safety practices such as enhanced sanitation protocols, 50% ridership to allow for social distancing, and mandatory face coverings.

The bus tours to the Interior are not an option, with businesses such as Globus, Colette and Tauck Tours canceling their tour packages. Out-of-state driving travelers haven’t been able to visit Alaska because of the Canada border crossing closed for non-essential travel until Nov. 21. 

 

Travel by sea

Before hitting the road or getting on a train, some visitors start their Interior Alaska experience on cruises. Cruises haven’t been running this year, and the upcoming spring season depends on several factors. 

The federal cruise ban known as a No Sail Order ended Oct. 31 and was replaced with a Framework for Conditional Sailing, requiring ships and crews to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 onboard.

Canada banned cruise ships from its waters through Feb. 28, 2021, and the members of Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 95% of global ocean cruises, canceled operations in the U.S. through the end of the year. Association government affairs consultant Michael Tibbles estimated the loss for the state to be 1.4 million passengers and $1.2 billion in direct cruise-related spending.

“There continues to be strong demand for Alaska, but with so many factors outside of our control such as the state of the virus in the U.S. and critical port communities, it is difficult to predict impacts on Alaska’s 2021 season,” Tibbles wrote in an email.

According to Explore Fairbanks’ report, 41% of summer visitors to the Interior come from cruises, and some of the passengers moved their summer 2020 reservations to the next year.

While not in operation, cruise businesses are preparing for the next season and the extensive safety measures such as 100% testing of passengers and crew, face coverings, social distancing, improved ventilation and increased medical staff onboard, Tibbles wrote.

 

Traveling’s future

Before the pandemic, tourism in Fairbanks had been seeing record growth, with the hotel/motel tax collection growing by 5% on average in the last five years and the boom of winter tourism focused on aurora viewing. The 2020 numbers were continuing the trend.

“2020 was off to a good start,” McCrea said during a recent Explore Fairbanks’ presentation to the Fairbanks City Council. “When things started happening in March, we saw a drastic decline.”

In the beginning of March, the most popular winter month, businesses started seeing less revenue, and by mid-month a lot of them closed, according to the Explore Fairbanks report. Then came the summer cancellations.

Overall, the Interior lost a huge number of visitors this year that in regular years is more than 2 million people, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Fewer visitors meant less demand on services, and the local leisure and hospitality sector cut its jobs by 41%, employing 4,800 people in September compared to 8,100 people in June last year, according to the Explore Fairbanks report.

The losses that the Fairbanks tourism industry has sustained are a reflection of the statewide and nationwide economic damage caused by the virus outbreak. The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported that, over the year, leisure and hospitality lost 13,800 jobs, or 32%.

While there are some good signs of the businesses starting to adjust or get better, McCrea said the economic effects of the pandemic will probably be long-lasting and that visitors might be cautious about traveling for some time after the pandemic.

However, McCrea said the Explore Fairbanks team hopes that the national and international interest in Alaska will prevail and, with the development of new safety procedures, rapid testing and a possible COVID-19 vaccine, visitors will come back to the Interior, especially since Alaska is a great place to explore safely.

“There is a national consumer sentiment,” he said. “When people are ready to travel, what they are looking for is wide spaces, national parks and fewer crowds. Alaska is the place that people are looking to experience. We are an ultimate social distancing destination." 

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.