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Last fall the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) requested $12.5 million in emergency funds from the state of Alaska for the organization's Crisis Recovery Plan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The request was justified by the recent findings from a task force appointed by the governor to assess the economic downturn Alaska would suffer following the attacks. The issue is now in the hands of the Legislature to approve these funds so Alaska jobs and businesses can be saved.
Within 60 days of the Sept. 11 attacks, the state of Florida approved $29 million to combat the sharp decline in visitors to that state. Other areas took a similar path: Hawaii, $10 million; Virginia, $2 million; the U.S. Virgin Islands, $7 million; New York City, $40 million; and Las Vegas, $13 million.
Those who watched television over the holidays observed the results of these efforts. The advertising bonanza that is targeting American travelers ranges from the U.S. Virgin Islands television commercial that airs every half-hour or so to Rudy Giuliani in Manhattan touting New York as a safe and better-than-ever vacation destination. While this marketing effort is under way, Alaska has been studying the situation. Even if the Legislature approves the funds immediately and the Crisis Campaign begins by late January, we will be four months behind our competition.
I remember the television ads that ran a decade or so ago that presented Alaska to the world as the unique and exotic destination we all know it is. This type of advertising helped establish Alaska as a premier visitor destination. The marketing effort has diminished over the years - largely due to the fact that Alaska (through ATIA) has a paltry $7.8 million annual budget to promote tourism.
The destinations mentioned above have tourism budgets ranging from $59 million to $17 million. The emergency funds each received after Sept. 11 were in addition to their existing budget allotments. The $12.5 million being requested by the ATIA would go a long way to help Alaska catch up and compete with the rest of the United States. Alaska ranks 36th in state funding for tourism and marketing dismal considering the fact that we offer an experience no other state can touch.
Detractors of this emergency funding have suggested that the $12.5 million will only enhance the marketing efforts of the cruise lines and do little else. This is simply not true. The cruise industry spends about $70 million annually to sell Alaska. The main beneficiary of the Crisis Recovery Plan is the small business owner, their employees, and other businesses that have direct or indirect ties to the visitor industry.
The marketing message that Alaskans must convey should be decisively Alaskan - delivered by Alaskans and for the benefit of Alaskans. ATIA has the plan and infrastructure in place to deliver this message; they are simply seeking the means to get it rolling.
For the sake of Alaska families across the state, the Legislature should approve investing $12.5 million to help save jobs for Alaska's largest private-sector employer and ensure that some 125 million tourism dollars will be injected into state and local treasuries this coming summer. Please do your part to make that happen.
Bill Hagevig is a division manager for Princess Tours. He is a life-long Southeast Alaska resident.