Aspen Hotel chain Owner George Swift cuts a ribbon officially opening the hotel in Homer, Alaska, during a grand opening ceremony on May 29, 2019. With tourism facing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, Aspen Hotels is considering layoffs at its Alaska properties. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Aspen Hotel chain Owner George Swift cuts a ribbon officially opening the hotel in Homer, Alaska, during a grand opening ceremony on May 29, 2019. With tourism facing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, Aspen Hotels is considering layoffs at its Alaska properties. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Trends: Tourism industry takes hit from COVID-19

‘Completely decimated travel in Alaska’

Local restaurateurs, hotel owners and tour operators are feeling uncertain about the 2020 tourism season, which normally begins at the end of April in Alaska.

The 2020 summer season is a major concern for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, Executive Director Debbie Speakman said.

She said hotels and lodges have already seen cancellations and a standstill in bookings has business owners worried about their summer season. Speakman said the industry is encouraging travelers to postpone their trips rather than cancel altogether.

Mike Flores owns four tourism companies, Ninilchik Charters, Seward Fishing Club, Alaska Destinations and Soaring Eagle Lodge. He said some of his customers have already moved their trips up to 2021. He said he doesn’t plan on laying off any staff.

“Even if we’re not fishing, we have other work,” Flores said.

He’s waiting until April 25 to make a decision on whether or not he limits operations in May and June. Despite all this, Flores said he’s still hopeful.

Speakman and others all said they’ve noticed guests holding out for a trip later in the summer. They have noticed people aren’t canceling trips later in the summer, like in late July and August. Flores said at his lodge, guests who booked in late summer are “holding tight” to their reservations.

This summer, tourism businesses on the Kenai Peninsula will have an additional hurdle to overcome, with many local businesses hoping to bounce back after the 2019 Swan Lake Fire interrupted traffic to the peninsula and filled communities with smoke during peak tourism season.

“My big fear for our area is — last year we had a fire and cancellations, so people are already at 50 percent,” Speakman said. “They could still pay their employees. Now compound (this global pandemic). My fear is that a lot of people may not recover. I’m afraid a lot of people will not be able to weather the storm.”

Flores said the Swan Lake Fire “threw us into the red” more than $200,000.

“We stomached the loss, but now we may have more losses (this summer),” Flores said.

Flores submitted paperwork for disaster assistance to the Small Business Administration this week.

“We’re going to need assistance to stay afloat,” he said.

A large part of Alaska’s tourism industry is the cruise industry, which brings a million visitors to the state every year, Speakman said. Cruise ships would normally begin filling the small towns of Southeast Alaska at the end of April. On the peninsula, Seward was expecting its first ship to dock May 5 and in Homer May 12.

Citing concerns about COVID-19, Canada has closed all of its ports to cruises until July. Many Alaska cruises begin at the Seattle Port, which announced an indefinite closure of the port to cruises on Tuesday.

“The Port now expects the launch of the cruise season will be delayed until the resolution of the public health emergency,” a March 24 release from the port said.

The spring months are typically when lodges, tour operators and other tourism outlets hire their seasonal staff, bringing in workers from across Alaska and the world, to the peninsula. Speakman said local businesses aren’t hiring right now. Some businesses are considering layoffs.

Carol Fraser is the regional director of sales and marketing at Aspen Hotels of Alaska. She said layoffs are being considered this week at their Alaska hotels in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Anchorage, Sitka, Juneau and Haines. The hotel chain employs about 120 Alaskans year round and 20 seasonal staff.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “The virus has completely decimated travel in Alaska … Every hotel — everyone in tourism is devastated completely.”

Fraser said the hospitality industry has already seen a loss of guests this spring, with the cancellation of high school sports and all local conventions or conferences.

“Aspen is home to every school sports teams,” she said. “All conventions and conferences are canceled — that winter business is really important. Now we’re starting to see summer fall apart.”

The marketing council received a $150,000 grant from the Kenai Peninsula Borough to market the borough to travelers. Speakman said the council had been working for about a month and a half to build up traffic to their website and on social media, which came to a grinding halt in February, when concerns of the new coronavirus came to the U.S.

Speakman says a silver lining for the peninsula is that about 60% of the visitors to the Kenai are from other Alaskans.

“There’s people who don’t see themselves in tourism businesses, but we’re all in this together,” Speakman said.

The Soldotna Chamber’s Music in the Park series has a goal of drawing nearby visitors to the city’s center. The first concert is scheduled for June 3, and the chamber doesn’t have any plans to cancel the series at this time, executive director of the chamber, Shannon Davis, said.

“We are beyond hopeful that this crisis will have passed by June and our community will be able to come together in unity and celebrate together,” Davis said.

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