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My Turn: Rough seas ahead for Alaska tourism

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Batten down the hatches; it's going to be rough seas for Alaska tourism this year. As recent months have made clear, the global economic crisis is presenting Alaska with the potential for a devastating loss of visitors this summer.

Our initial research and intuition tell us that many Americans just aren't traveling. We're worried about our savings, our children's college tuition, our mortgage payments and, in many cases, our jobs. Unless this worry abates, Alaska could see a double digit drop in visitors this year.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association's job won't be an easy one. The 40,000 jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity generated by Alaska's visitor industry are critically dependent on successfully convincing travelers to choose Alaska over competing destinations. No doubt large and small businesses will attempt to attract visitors through dramatic price-cutting. This will negatively affect their bottom lines and many businesses may not survive without specialized efforts to encourage visitors to come this year.

ATIA's Marketing Committee already has responded to this crisis with a special "Alaska Value Campaign." From what was left of our current fiscal year budget, we reallocated the majority of it, some $600,000, to assist Alaska's visitor businesses right now.

The focus of this late winter and early spring marketing campaign will be to attract visitors through promoting special summer offers. We have created a web page to promote the deals at www.AlaskasHottestDeals.com, and ATIA is using the tools available to promote the special values available in our state this year, including public relations, television advertising and online advertising.

Alaskans who don't have a direct connection to the visitor industry can help their communities and neighbors by encouraging family and friends to visit our state this year. Alaskans also can support the visitor industry by traveling instate themselves. For many of us, this will be the only way we will get a vacation.

Don't feel bad about sticking closer to home. From taking a day cruise to renting kayaks or hiring a fishing guide or water taxi, we all can enjoy our beautiful state and help small tourism businesses weather the challenging season ahead.

However, for tourism to be successful in the long term, Alaska needs to invest in a sustained, high-level marketing campaign. We have argued for many years that $20 million - roughly double our current annual budget - is the minimum needed to reach more potential visitors, expanding opportunities for Alaska businesses to serve travelers and the interests of a strong state economy. This is especially important when a crisis like the post-9/11 declines in visitors or the current global economic downturn occur.

The Alaska Legislature has given Alaska a start by approving the current level of funding, and being able to proactively market Alaska with a stable budget is imperative. But we're facing unprecedented economic conditions, and ATIA needs additional funding from state government through re-investment of statewide tourism taxes to insure the industry survives and this important sector of the economy stays solvent.

This additional support does not mean bailing out tourism. It means investing in an important industry and believing that tourism is everyone's business.

• Ron Peck is president and COO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.



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