On March 7 the Canadian government released its revised regulations on travel between Alaska and the Lower 48 through Canada. The release states that the government of Canada continues to strongly advise foreign nationals to postpone or cancel travel plans through Canada.
A statement by Patty Hajdu, minister of health states: “Variances are of concern, which is why we are putting these additional measures in place. Now is not the time to travel, so please cancel any plans you might have.” The Canadian release does not indicate when these restrictions might be lifted.
Cruise ship sailings to and from Canadian ports is prohibited through February 2022.
Our Canadian friends are to be acknowledged for their efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus in their country. Yet, because of our unique geography, the adverse impact of this regulation on Alaska has created a crisis that warrants an immediate state emergency.
Highway access from U.S. entry states to the Alcan Highway, as well as British Columbia and Yukon Territory, is now closed except for essential travel. The same closure is preventing travel from both Haines and Skagway through British Columbia and on to the Alaska Highway system to the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Fencing in Alaska from the panhandle of Southeast to the mainland to the north and west is totally unfair and unacceptable. No other state in the union is exposed to being isolated from the rest of the United States by the mandate of a foreign nation (however appropriate that action might be for the safety of its citizens).
Other than travel by air, the only alternative is the service capability of our Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). The AHMS has four mainline ocean-going vessels, the Matanuska, the Malaspina, the Columbia and the Kennecott. Each of these vessels has a capacity for nearly 1109 vehicles and nearly 500 passengers.
We have an opportunity to seek federal emergency funding to get at least two of our four mainline vessels up and operational. A previously authorized federal program for rural transportation needs is funded in the amount of $2.5 billion. While some of these funds may have been spent, there may be future funds available in the COVID-19 relief bill which would allow at least two sailings per week from Bellingham to Alaska. This could be extended until Canada’s “fence” would be removed and access through Canada is again open.
I encourage our governor, the Legislature and the state Department of Transportation along with the congressional delegation to join in declaring a state of emergency.
Most of our attention has been focused on our seasonal tourist. The number of visitors on cruise ships has grown dramatically. Alaska has been the number one cruise destination for cruise line passengers. We anticipated nearly 1.2 million visitors for the current season. But this industry has been shut down through February 2022.
Yet there is another type of visitor. The person or family that wants to travel by car or RV. They are not interested in cruising — they want the freedom of traveling in their own vehicle or camper.
We have never really developed a program to reach out to solicit the camper type tourist who has Alaska on his bucket list. Transporting this type of traveler at a reasonable cost is what the Alaska Marine Highway system was designed to serve.
The AMHS travelers will spend their dollars in Alaska communities for gas, lodging, bed and breakfasts, and tours. Their dollars will stay in Alaska aiding our service providers.
I think it appropriate to note that there is a major inconsistency between the northern and southern borders. Alaska is the only state affected by the intrastate restrictions enforced by our Canadian neighbors. Yet at the same time the current administration has opened the Mexican border to illegal aliens and unaccompanied minor children with few restrictions on virus testing. It puts our American bordering states residents at risk.
Perhaps the administration should take a lesson from Canada.
Frank Murkowski was governor of Alaska from 2002 to 2006. He previously served in the U.S. Senate, where he served as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 1995 to 2001.