Denali area businesses are closing their doors this month after a busy and exhausting summer season. With Covid-19 curtailing some international travel, Alaska and Denali National Park became the go-to vacation spot for travelers this year.
“It was unbelievable,” said Holly Slinkard, one of the owners of McKinley Creekside Cabins & Cafe at Carlo Creek. “We knew it was going to be busy, but we just didn’t foresee being as busy as it was.”
Creekside’s last day is Sept. 12 and they are booked solid up to closing, just as they have been all summer.
They were lucky. They were able to maintain staffing that allowed them to remain open seven days a week all summer long.
“I’m so thankful we held on to our staff last year and this year,” she said. “That definitely was our advantage. If we hadn’t done that, we would have been in a world of hurt like everybody else.”
Business boomed in the Denali area this summer. But finding workers was not easy and staffing became a big challenge. The J-1 Visa program that usually provides hundreds of young workers from overseas did not bring in workers this year. Nor were there other seasonal applicants. Some businesses cut back on hours as a result or didn’t open at all.
“I don’t think businesses anticipated how difficult the staffing piece would be,” said Vanessa Jusczak, director of the Denali Chamber of Commerce. “I know one or two businesses, they had enough employees, but it was only enough in a perfect world. If someone got sick, all of a sudden, there weren’t enough.
“Of course, there were still plenty of surprises along the way, like the park road situation,” she said.
Denali National Park faces an ongoing problem keeping the park road open due to the Pretty Rocks landslide on Polychrome Pass. The park closed the road, for safety concerns, on Aug. 24, and lodges in Kantishna closed early as a result.
“I wish I could say it will be easier next year,” she added. “We have a new normal and I don’t quite know what it is yet. 2022 will still have some challenges and surprises ahead for us.”
She thinks Discover Denali (the visitors arm of the chamber), the Denali Borough and independent businesses need to work together to market all the experiences Denali has to offer visitors, outside of the park road.
The road closure also resulted in the cancellation of the annual road lottery, and refunds are being provided to successful applicants. The road lottery, which includes a military appreciation day, allows people to drive personal vehicles into the park for one day. This year, lottery weekend was Sept. 17-21.
But the park road issue and Pretty Rocks landslide are not going away and Denali National Park continues seeking a permanent solution. Slinkard said she also wonders about next year and expects business to remain strong.
“International travel is still a toss up for quite some time,” she said. “People will continue to do what is closest and safest to them. Alaska hits all those points.”
“I think we’ll be just as busy next year,” she said. “Hopefully the work force will work itself out by then.”
Luckily, she’ll have some down town to prepare.
“My season is over in five days,” she said. “We get a break. That’s the wonderful thing about seasonal business.”
Some businesses remain open through the Sept. 22 timeframe. Some businesses are already closed or closing before then. Tour and transit buses will continue operating at Denali National Park until the second Thursday after Labor Day, Sept. 16.