ATIA conference discusses troubles and triumphs on last day

Members of Alaska's legislature share their thoughts on the tourism industry.
Published: Oct. 31, 2023 at 10:39 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - On the last day of the 2023 Alaska Travel Industry Association’s annual convention legislators and industry members spoke about the difficulties they faced during a strong cruise season that has brought much positivity post pandemic.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism was all but lost for two years. With many eager to return to normalcy and adventure, 2022 became a massive year for Alaska’s tourism industry with record numbers of returning and new visitors to the state. But, those fantastic economic figures did not come with ease.

October 26, was the last day of the 2023 Alaska Travel Industry Association’s annual convention and attendees were able to hear from state legislators about their thoughts on issues and the developments to come in the future. Issues discussed included the Covid-19 pandemic, the record cruise and tourism season, and also environmental and energy issues.

Three legislators spoke to the convention from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Westmark Hotel. Those legislators included representatives Cathy Tilton, Calvin Schrage, and Senator Bert Stedman. During the legislative panel speech, the focus of a returning tourism economy generated a myriad of topics, ranging from the marine highway to housing.

While economics was the general theme of the legislative panel, the ability to better manage the economy was said to be a challenge, but one Sen. Stedman is willing to work on. “Covid, who saw that coming? Who saw the dot-com bubble burst? The high-tech implosion?” All of these questions posed by Sen. Stedman, (R) - District A, led to his take on how to handle the uncertainty of modern economics and how the state can be better suited for that uncertainty. “What you have to do is have the state in the fiscal position to be nimble and that takes cash and control of the expenditures,” Stedman said. “We need to get ahead of these things and not play catch up.”

Among the legislators and the attendees, there was also a loose but collective agreement that there are structural issues to be addressed. “When we shutdown, we collectively, the world, we got kicked in the pants and to turn that switch back on as you can all see, we’re having a hard time getting people back into the workforce. We have problems in our schools and we have work ethic issues,” Stedman said. While things are certainly improving as Alaska saw a record cruise season, these issues remain and extends beyond tourism.

Fishing in particular is facing great instability and uncertainty, something that certainly impacts tourism as do other issues. Stedman discussed the ties between fishing and tourism, primarily the culinary ties the two industries share and how it brings people to Alaska, but also the reliance on seasonal workers in both sectors.

Turning from fishing boats to cruise ships, aspirations for innovative future solutions also came up. This time, the focus was related to protecting the environment while benefiting the cruise industry, the tourists on the boats and the communities they visit in the last frontier. The proposed solution was electrifying cruise ships. According to Stedman, converting the cruise ships to electric vehicles will lower cruise prices, allow more money to be spent in Alaska, and help power Alaska’s communities in turn by providing power and profit back to the 49th state.

There was also a call for increased marketing and marketing funding from the state. “The worst thing we can do in my opinion is stick our heads in the sand and cut our marketing dollars. That’s just down right foolish,” said Stedman, to which his statement was followed by significant applause.

However, one major hurdle that has impacted the last frontier, tourism, and it’s workforce, is housing. “We have a housing crisis in every single community and that’s from not enough houses and interest rates being too high, to Air BNB and VRBO taking too many homes and beds and bedrooms,” said Carol Fraser, the president of Aspen Hotels. According to Fraser, this has made it difficult to recruit workers for tourism, many of which come from out of state.

But it also impacts how many people stay in state. “If young people don’t have a place to live they’re not going to stay here. They’re not going to have a family here,” Stedman said, further pointing out the issue of housing. Rep. Schrage echoed Stedman and added that another part of the solution to recruitment is a need to market for tourism jobs.

While those in the industry, both workers and business managers alike, agree there is a shortage of staffing for tourism jobs. Reports from the Alaska Dept. of Labor have shown the tourism sector has seen more gains than other economic sectors in Alaska. Those gains are also continuing post-pandemic.

While this might provide relief from staffing shortages, it could also collide with the housing shortage, capping the growth of the industry.