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Easing of border covid restrictions to boost Alaska's tourism industry

CBPborderrestrictionslifted3 screenshot
The Homeland Security Department on Monday released details of the federal government's easing of covid-related restrictions for non-essential travel to the United States.

For international travelers, ‘This was the news they’d been waiting for’ Explore Fairbanks' top executive says

Alaska’s pandemic-battered tourism industry got a big shot in the arm Monday when the federal government eased covid-related travel restrictions that had kept people from more than 30 countries from visiting the state. Fully vaccinated individuals are now able to freely fly and drive into Alaska.

The rollback of restrictions on foreign nationals entering the U-S, including across the Alaska-Canada border, has not triggered a stampede of visitors at the Alcan port of entry south of Tok.

U.S. General Services Administration
The Alcan Point of Entry is located at milepost 1186 on the Alaska Highway, about 93 miles south of Tok.

“I can tell you we have seen a slight increase. It really hasn’t been a whole lot,” says Kymberly Fernandez, the assistant area port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Anchorage.

Fernandez says travelers may still be learning about the latest border crossing regulations on covid vaccination and testing.

“Even though the vaccinated folks can travel back and forth to get back into Canada, they still have some extra requirements,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

And also – winter is just generally a slow time for Alaska visitors to enter the state from Canada.

“Most of the visitors who are making the trip across the Alaska-Canadian Highway are summer visitors,” says Scott McCrea, the president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks, the city’s tourism-promotion organization.

McCrea says the easing of foreign-entry restrictions could have a more immediate impact on winter tourism. A market he says had been growing briskly, mainly due to foreign tourists who fly to Alaska to experience the northern lights, ice sculptures, dog mushing and other seasonal attractions.

Explore Fairbanks
Explore Fairbanks promotes opportunities to view aurora borealis and other winter tourism attractions in the Interior with its Winter Guide.

“And those, typically, in the past have been from the Asian markets,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

McCrea says he’s optimistic that the overall number of international travelers to Alaska will bounce back. He cites among other things the German tourism industry’s enthusiastic response to announcements by U.S. officials a few weeks ago stating they would soon lift restrictions on nonessential travel for foreign visitors.

“Immediately … we got feedback from our contractor over there, from tour operators in that region, travel agents and so forth,” he said. “I mean, this was the news they’d been waiting for.”

McCrea predicts it’ll take two or three years for Alaska-bound international travel to return to pre-pandemic levels. But he says everyone in the tourism business is feeling better about its prospects since Monday – including the Alaska Travel Industry Association, which hailed the easing of restrictions in a statement it released Wednesday.

“Alaska’s travel industry, including many businesses have been anticipating the reopening of our borders to international travelers this week,” according to the statement, attributed to ATIA President and CEO Sarah Leonard

“The pandemic has substantially disrupted the livelihoods of so many tourism-business owners and employees in Alaska for the past two years. With borders opening again to vaccinated travelers from around the world, we look forward to increased Alaska Highway visitor traffic and international air travelers who will experience the adventure of Alaska in our amazing scenery, wildlife and rich culture.”

McCrea says international travelers “are an important part of our marketing mix. And for the most part, (over) the last years, they’ve been non-existent.”

He cautions that the tourism industry’s recovery could be slowed, at least in the short term, by rising energy costs that could make travel to Alaska more expensive.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.