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Denali National Park Summer Uncertain

Denali National Park has not yet decided whether summer visitor access will change due to the coronavirus pandemic. The park service cancelled the Denali climbing season, but in an email, Park spokesperson GW Hitchcock says “The park is not ready to release any updated information regarding its operational posture for the summer season.”

Meanwhile with cruise ships and Alaska Railroad passenger trains paused until July, there’s concern in the Denali Park area that the 600,000 visitors which drive the area’s economy, won’t be showing up this year. 

There’s not the usual pre-season hustle happening at hotels, and other tourism operations in the Denali region.

"With many businesses either opening late, or some have announced they are not opening at all.”

Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker says April is typically when the area’s visitor industry begins ramping up to prepare for the summer season, and that’s not happening.

"In this month of April and in May, we recieve typically, thousands of seasonal employees. We don't foresee that happening on such a scale. Right now with the mandates, employees should not be coming here."

"Year-round population of the Denali Borough is about 2,000 people. And there is close to that number that comes here as seasonal workers.”

Vanessa Jusczak is executive director of the Denali Borough Chamber of commerce. Jusczak says the chamber represents 128 businesses, about half of which are tourism based, with others also dependent on visitors.

"Directly impacted by the visitation, even though they are not geared to that. You know, gas stations or car service.”

Jusczak says the chamber surveyed members about the upcoming season earlier this month prior to some of the pandemic restrictions.

"But the numbers even then were pretty grim in terms of the responses we got. 68% were seeing significant cancellations for the season, and almost 50% of them were seeing cancellations of greater than 50% of their seasonal business for the year.”

Jusczak says that means negative cash flow for the businesses, about 40 percent of which said they would be in danger of closing if the trend continues. She says the situation has the chamber helping business owners navigate application for federal CARES Act loans to stay afloat.  Meanwhile, Mayor Walker says the prospect of no summer tourist business also presents a bleak financial picture for Denali borough government.

"80 percent of our revenue comes from the overnight accomodations tax. It would be a massive hit, almost catastrophic frankly.”

Mayor Walker, the chamber’s Jusczak and others have formed the Denali Recovery Alliance, an effort to position the borough to rebound after the pandemic slowdown. 

Dan has been in public radio news in Alaska since 1993. He’s worked as a reporter, newscaster and talk show host at stations in McGrath, Valdez and Fairbanks. Dan’s experience includes coverage of a wide range of topics, from wolf control to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and dog mushing.