Last month, we attended the Alaska Travel Industry Association’s (ATIA) Live from Alaska conference (virtually, of course), where we got the scoop on traveling to Alaska for summer and into fall—from COVID-19 protocols to what’s open for business. The resounding message? “Alaska is open,” as Elizabeth Hall, COO for John Hall’s Alaska put it.
Scott Habberstad, director of sales and community marketing for Alaska Airlines, said, “Alaska is ready to welcome guests this summer. Alaska Airlines offers nonstop flights from Honolulu, Las Vegas, L.A., Chicago, Portland, Phoenix, Seattle…. And the newest is Minneapolis, St. Paul to Anchorage.”
Camille Ferguson, economic development director, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, says, “We have several flights a day coming into the Southeast, and we’ll see additional flights as of Memorial Weekend. In addition, Delta will resume with its seasonal flights to Ketchikan starting Memorial Day Weekend. We also want people to think about a ferry and fly option. The Alaska Marine Highway does depart out of Bellingham, Washington and is going to be traveling throughout the state. There are lots of great ways to combine a ferry trip up and a flight home, or you can ferry-ferry in seven days from Ketchikan, and in other communities other options are available.”
She encourages advisors to speak to the various visitors bureaus to get information to help put together itineraries for Alaska’s Southeast area.
“It’s no secret we still don’t have the large cruise ships returning to the southeast,” says Patti Mackey, president and CEO, Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.
“Obviously, large cruise ships not being able to operate has had a bit of an impact on us, but also in a positive way for us to be a little bit more creative,” adds Hall. “You’ll start to see some smaller groups, you’ll see us heading to southeast Alaska in a different fashion whether it’s an all-vessel partner or catamaran options, and bay options as well in southeast Alaska. One thing I see going forward is the motor coach industry; if they’re privately owned, they haven’t received state mandates on how they’re able to operate,” she says. “We’ve been fortunate as we’ve had our own mandates running our motor coaches at 50 percent capacity.”
If you’re wondering what your clients should keep in mind when entering Alaska and the various communities, Hall says the main thing if you’re going across different boroughs and communities in Alaska is that almost every community does have a different mandate, whether on a state or federal level. “It’s really important to remember that when you go into it. Alaska is very different from what’s happening in the lower 48,” she says. ”I think it’s important for visitors to remember that we’re very protected; we have limited resources when it comes to medical facilities, so it’s important that visitors respect that and understand that coming into the state. Being aware of what those different mandates are from the different partners across the state will definitely make their trip a lot easier.”
Colleen Stephens, president, Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises, adds, “We have fantastic resources even in our smallest and remote communities. We have different health resources available depending how small our communities are, and all of our small communities rely on the health resources in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. When you see these different restrictions from community to community and remote area to remote area, it’s because they’re having to work within that network and make sure they can support one another and support the traveler as they come through.”
For more information she points to travelalaska.com, which features a tab with info on COVID-19 links, resources and updates, including what travel advisories are in place statewide and also within various communities.
Visiting Alaska Affordably Without Cruises
Hall says, “In some places in southeast Alaska, they have great rates at the hotels that travelers can use as a home point and go on day trips. A lot of the folks down there are operating their day trips, and in an effort to get people on them, they’re also offering discounted rates. There are some creative packages out there for different operators, and the small vessels in the southeast are offering great opportunities to get on board.”
Dan Oberlatz, owner-guide for Alaska Alpine Adventures, adds that, “Cost is primarily based on transportation and depends on the destination within Alaska. When you get into smaller planes cost goes up per person, per day significantly. If you’re on a rail belt or a rental car you can keep those costs somewhat at a minimum. Typically across the board on our trips, folks can look at roughly $500 pp/per day on the course of their adventure.” He continues, “We travel to some of the more remote places in Alaska and we are in and out of small aircrafts and that’s what drives our pricing. On the less expensive trips along the road system, you can get by with $200-300 pp, per day depending on the itinerary and the destination.”
From the airline perspective, Alaska Airlines’ Habberstad says, “When there’s a lot of capacity, airline industry prices go down. And there’s a lot of capacity coming to the state of Alaska. That’s going to keep prices down to and from Alaska. If you look in the southeast, there’s a lot of competition, there are multiple carriers going to the southeast region, and you’re able to curate your own kind of experience by using the experiences that take place in town and tying in a fly-ferry experience in the southeast. Make your own experience by combining air with the Alaska Marine Highway to make your total Alaska experience.”
“People are being very creative with packages between businesses, which is driving cost down,” adds Stephens. She suggests you always check out travelalaska.com for their “specials section,” where packaging groups and independent companies share their special rates and offers.
Best Ways to Experience Cultural Alaska
“The best way to experience cultural Alaska,” says Ferguson, “is to contact one of the tribes that are in the industry to see if they’re set up for this year’s tourism. Contact the places ahead of time so your [clients] aren’t disappointed when they come into the area. Another thing is that the venues will be changing a little bit because we’re dealing more with smaller, more intimate groups,” she adds. “I highly recommend doing a traditional walking tour, a canoe ride, or even exploring some of the cultural venues in southeast Alaska. I’m strongly encouraging visitors to come and enjoy this year because it is a good year to come as an independent traveler and really get that experience.”
“I think one of the best-kept secrets out there is the Totem Heritage Center. That is a facility that houses totem poles that were rescued from abandoned native village sites in the mid-1970s,” says Mackey. “That’s a great place to start. In some cases you’ll see poles that are over 200 years old.”
“But remember, cultural tourism can also be other cultures,” she adds, “so I always encourage people when they are in Ketchikan to visit a Filipino restaurant; we have a large population of Filipino people in our community. Other than that, we have self-guided maps that provide a lot of history and background as well.”
Ferguson adds, “We do have a multi-cultural state and we have the history of the Russian Americas here, as well as WWII, so experiencing the many different cultures that are here is one of the elements that Alaska has to offer.”
For the more adventurous types, Oberlatz says, “Alaska Alpine Adventures focuses on multi-day wilderness trips in Alaska’s national parks and wildlife refuges. We cover pure, real, adventure travel. You’re going to be sleeping on the ground and really experiencing the landscapes that indigenous cultures have been moving through and relying on for centuries, which is also part of the cultural experience—visiting remote communities and immersing yourself within remote Alaska, which is extraordinarily unique. We have eight national parks in Alaska, 50 million acres of national park land alone and countless acres in the National Wildlife Refuge system, U.S. Forests Service—there’s a lot of federal, public, and state land to enjoy. It’s a very unique opportunity to see Alaska in a way that very few do. And interestingly enough, a global pandemic is now shining a spotlight on the entire state of Alaska and creating an urge for people to get outside and breathe fresh air, and see Alaska in small group-type experiences.”
He adds, “We are going to have a banner year, our industry can’t say the same across the board, but for the types of trips that Alaska Alpine Adventures operates, I think it illustrates what the future holds for our great state.”
What’s Open Now?
“Statewide, many of our attractions and restaurants are open for business and functioning,” says Stephens. “Each community still has some different health operations that they’ve asked their businesses to look at. In many situations there might be limited capacity in a restaurant or shoreside excursion. For attractions, it depends how that falls; if it falls under the executive order from the President or not, sometimes there are different requirements. But, most of them are still operating. So yes, many are open; many are operating. However, when you head to the more remote locations in Alaska, and some of our smaller villages, it’s very important to do some research because some of those communities right now are protecting themselves because they are so small and their resources are limited, and so they may or may not be having travelers in, or they may be having them with certain restrictions. It’s important that the more remote you get, you do that research along the way.”
Ferguson adds that in Sitka everything is open—the National Park Service is welcoming people to do the trails, restaurants are open, with some not even imposing mask restrictions. “Our community is slowly opening up,” she adds.
“The rate of vaccination in Alaska has been quite good and that also includes the ability to vaccinate some of our incoming workers,” says Mackey, noting that, “the Governor has announced that we can even vaccinate visitors. That’s been a real game-changer.
“With that said,” she adds, “there are still some areas that are maintaining very local restrictions because of their individual situations. Ketchikan is pretty wide-open at this point. Because we have been careful, we are able to provide just about all the services somebody could want. ATIA has a great set up, they’re working with the state to provide up-to-date information about entering the state, and also assisting with individual information. You can also check with individual visitors bureaus to find out what exactly is the requirement of the moment with regards to masks and percentages of occupancy and things like that.”
“The key message is to check with the ATIA website,” adds Habberstad. “But Alaska is open for business. The state does not require that you have a COVID test prior to coming; it’s suggested, but not required. And when you come to Alaska and come to one of our main large airports, you have the opportunity to get a complimentary COVID test upon arrival. That includes Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and Juneau.”
“Alaska is a safe destination—plenty of wide-open spaces, lots of fresh air, and beautiful, clean water,” says Oberlatz. “The operators who have operated during a pandemic prove that we can host visitors even at the height of a global pandemic. The protocols to travel here safely are there. The demand is there and Alaska is a huge state—Lake Clark is twice the size of Yellowstone. I encourage people to get out and experience the place, come to Alaska and know you’ll be treated with respect and you’re going to have an amazing time, and you’ll be able to travel safely.”
“Alaska is open,” adds Hall. “It’s going to look different this year, but in a really fun and exciting way. If you’re willing to get creative in your travel, there’s lots of things to do in Alaska, and we cannot wait to host you after months of quieter times.”
Mackey adds, “It’s going to look a little different, but there are lots of things for people to still see and do. One thing I urge travelers is to be flexible. For example, you may find in Ketchikan, on a cruise day, that some restaurants are going to be closed Sundays, and some shops are going to be closed because they are small operations. Be aware of what the local culture is like and plan ahead. Sunday is a great day for a hike, you just have to be a little prepared.”
And as Ferguson puts it, “Social distancing has been the natural way to visit Alaska anyway. There’s plenty of room.” And Habberstad concludes, “We’ve been social distancing before it was hip to social distance.”