In plan to boost Alaska tourism, governor announces state will offer vaccines to tourists

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks about his hopes for holding a summer cruise season this year in a news conference in the hangar of Wings Airways in Juneau, Alaska, on April 9, 2021. Holland America executive Ralph Samuels and Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon are behind Dunleavy. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks about his hopes for holding a summer cruise season this year in a news conference in the hangar of Wings Airways in Juneau, Alaska, on April 9, 2021. Holland America executive Ralph Samuels and Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon are behind Dunleavy. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Alaska will offer tourists vaccinations starting on June 1 as part of the state’s plan to assist tourism-related businesses, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Friday at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

State officials acknowledged that the U.S.’s relatively high vaccination rate compared with other countries could make Alaska’s offer attractive internationally.

State Public Health Director Heidi Hedberg said the state currently has plenty of vaccines.

“We are not setting aside or delineating vaccine for Alaskans or nonresidents. Right now, what we’re saying is: ‘Today’s the day, Alaskans. Please get educated. Please get vaccinated,’” she said. “And starting June 1st, it’s going to be opened up for those tourists.”

She said the state is planning to operate sites in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The plan is for vaccinations to happen outside of the security areas at the airports, so state residents could get vaccinated when they pick up visitors.

Dunleavy also proposed spending $150 million to promote tourism and adapt for the potential loss of the cruise ship season.

The state tourism money would come from the $1 billion that the state government can determine how to spend from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Dunleavy also said a national advertising campaign he announced last week would likely be one of the largest the state has ever funded.

“It’s going to be print, it’ll be digital, it will be on TV stations, radio stations,” he said. “We want to make sure that they don’t forget about Alaska. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of beautiful states down in the lower 48. This is a spectacular state.”

In describing who could benefit from the tourism assistance, Dunleavy noted that both large and small businesses have been affected.

One small business owner is artist Robert McCoy-Apangalook of Gambell. He carves walrus ivory, whalebone, baleen and antlers. He attended the announcement with his mother Barbara Apangalook, who sews sealskin, polar bear and sea otter fur, and walrus whiskers and intestines. He said venues where his art usually is sold to tourists did not provide business during the pandemic, which began shortly after his daughter was born. It led to an eviction notice at one point.

“I had never felt like such a failure and [became] certain I had made the wrong decision choosing my art as a career,” he said. “Fortunately, I found a new — new to me — market via social media, and a rebirth in support that has allowed me to regain my confidence as an artist.”

Alaska Native Heritage Center Executive Director Emily Edenshaw said that as the state rebuilds its tourism industry, Alaska Natives should be treated justly.

“For centuries, Alaska Natives have endured with resilience an existence at the receiving end of unjust policies, grounded in the erasure of our languages, histories and cultures,” she said.

She said the drop in tourism provides breathing room to reimagine who and what participates in tourism, including presenting more Alaska Native culture.

“It’s essential to talk about our history, because the reality is that our lived experience has consistently been left out of the story told about Alaska,” she said. “And much of our cultural tourism work today is grounded in addressing this deficit, and to tell a more complete story.”

Dunleavy said the state could provide “holidays” from paying certain licenses and fees to help support tourism. But he also said the details of how the money will be spent will draw from what Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer hears.

On Monday, Meyer plans to begin a two-week tour meeting with tourism-related businesses and community leaders.

He acknowledged that Southeast Alaska communities were hit particularly hard by the loss of cruise ship visits.

“It’s hard to make up that difference with independent travelers, but … with a robust marketing program, we’re going to get as many up here as we can,” he said.

Meyer plans to visit Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Kenai, Homer, Fairbanks, Healy and Nome.

Dunleavy laid out his plan for the entire amount the state will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, including the $150 million for tourism. It includes $325 million for relief for businesses and other organizations and another $325 million for infrastructure investments, including in safe water, sewers and broadband.

Another piece would provide $80 million for what the administration calls “protecting Alaskans. ” That includes funding for emergency response costs addressing the domestic violence during the pandemic, as well as support for food security, including agriculture and fishing in the state.

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