Alaska editorial: Alaska can do more to promote tourism

Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:

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Ketchikan's tourism is just as fragile as the timber industry if we don't do our part to maintain it.

The tourism season started May 5 with the arrival of the first cruise ship of 2007. After a no-ship Sunday, not a day will go by between May 7 and Sept. 30 that the First City won't welcome cruise passengers.

The ships are expected to bring 853,654 passengers, plus crew members, to town this season. That's the second highest number in the past 12 years; only 2005 had more passengers at 921,429.

With the expanded city port near completion and construction of a fourth berth beginning, the numbers can be expected to increase in years to come. The millionth passenger in one future season likely will receive heralded notice. And Ketchikan will be thankful when that time comes.

Tourism - just like the timber industry, which had its heyday, and mining and fishing before that - has its hurdles, Ketchikan Visitors Bureau Executive Director Patti Mackey pointed out at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting.

We can build docks and ships will come as long as passengers wish to come here. Passengers come when they are enticed and their previous experiences here bring them back for repeat visits. That means we need to tell our story, not just to our countrymen in the Lower 48 as we did in the timber heyday, but to the world.

If we don't, prospective visitors will choose other destinations; destinations which are as beautiful as the Inside Passage and where developers see the potential for industry. Ketchikan and Alaska don't have a monopoly on coastal tourism. Prince Rupert, British Columbia is a close-to-home example of a community that, like Ketchikan, went through a decline in its dominant timber industry, has watched Ketchikan revitalize itself through cruise ship traffic, and has sought to make its community an attraction. But it isn't alone; ports around the world are doing it.

And, if they aren't developing a cruise ship industry, then they are trying to retain the one they have.

Perhaps the most disturbing comment Mackey made at the chamber meeting demonstrated the apparent lackadaisical attitude Alaska has toward tourism. Or perhaps it's just that other parts of the state enjoy multiple economic-boosting industries and don't rank tourism as high as Ketchikan. But, she noted, Ketchikan was the only Alaska community with a booth at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention in Miami this winter.

The state of Alaska lately has spent 75 percent less in marketing Alaska than it did almost 20 years ago. It spent more than $5 million last year, while average spending in most states is about $20 million. This while the competition for cruise passengers has increased. The Caribbean, a popular cruise destination before Alaska rose to the forefront, isn't content to share its industry; that's why it was represented at the convention.

Alaska has billions of dollars and the potential for additional billions with development of its resources, such as the pending natural gas pipeline. Eighty percent of its revenue comes from the oil pipeline. But a single industry state is a vulnerable one; tourism is an integral part of the Alaska economy from Ketchikan to Fairbanks and many points in between. It's Ketchikan's economic engine in the spring and summer, and it enables many businesses to operate here year round. An Anchorage businessman shared the same sentiment when speaking about downtown activity in the state's largest community just a week ago.

It's all well and good for the state to save money, as it has with its oil wealth. But it shouldn't save to the detriment of its economic future. Investing in tourism marketing more significantly enables communities to earn their own way.

The state has offered up to $500 million as an incentive for oil companies to participate in building a natural gas line. Oil companies, in particular big oil companies, will build the line with or without the $500 million if they want to see it built.

If any industry needs an incentive more than oil, it's tourism. It would be wise to spend more millions enticing visitors to Alaska. It's the best way to boost the tourism industry the communities depend on to secure their vitality.

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