Alaska editorial: We need measures to protect tourism

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2007

This editorial appeared in The Ketchikan Daily News:

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It would be economically terrifying if Ketchikan lost its tourism industry.

Tourism traffic slowed down dramatically following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Lives changed that day; they'll be changed forever.

In terms of tourism that September, the industry and communities dependent upon it saw how quickly it can come to a virtual standstill. Foreign travelers flew less frequently into the United States and Americans opted for vacations within the states more often.

That didn't bode well for overseas destinations, but it also pointed out a potential problem for the American tourism industry. Visitors to the United States are subjected to what some would describe as greater inconveniences through heightened security measures.

Sen. Ted Stevens, as vice chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, will be a lead Republican in addressing tourism-related issues in the 110th Congress. He is concerned about the decline in the number of foreign travelers to the United States, suggesting there needs to be a balance between promoting travel to the United States and maintaining security measures. Security shouldn't have the effect of discouraging foreign visitors and commerce, he says.

Discover America Partnership released a report, "A Blueprint to Discover America," last week. It outlines the visitor industry's plan to increase foreign travel to the United States, pointing out that the United States is ranked third among top destinations in the world behind Spain and France. The United States claims 6.1 percent of the worldwide visitors share compared to 9.4 percent in 1992.

The plan includes three proposals: fixing the U.S. visa issuance process; modernizing U.S. ports of entry, and creating a permanent tourism promotional campaign.

The plan follows the Secure Travel and Counterrorism Partnership Act introduced in the Senate in January. The act would extend 90-day visa-free travel privileges to U.S. allies in the War on Terror.

The travel and tourism industry is the second largest private-sector employer in Alaska. More than 24,000 workers in the state are employed by the industry. The industry contributes more than $2 billion to the state economy annually.

Ketchikan is expected to experience a 6 percent increase in cruise ship passengers next year, according to McDowell Group. It is estimated that Skagway will have an 8 percent increase and Juneau, 4 percent. An 11 percent increase is projected for Prince Rupert.

Declines are projected for Haines, 36 percent; Sitka, 21 percent, and Wrangell, 17 percent.

The total cruise passenger traffic for Southeast has increased steadily over the past 16 years, topping off at 920,000 in 2006, and is expected to increase to 954,000 in 2007. Those numbers will continue to increase with industry-encouraging legislation.

Government and civic leaders can provide legislation and infrastructure for the industry and tourism-related businesses to operate. But it greatly comes down to the individuals who work in the businesses and the community to speak highly of Ketchikan and Southeast as a whole to attract visitors and then treat them well when they arrive. What they think about their experience here and how visitors tell about it afterward is priceless advertising for Alaska tourism.

Those local efforts combined with the work of civic and government leaders will keep the industry growing and communities like Ketchikan thriving in spite of increased security at U.S. airports, borders and ports. Sept. 11 changed U.S. lives; it doesn't have to ruin them economically, thanks to efforts in the U.S. Senate.

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