Alaska Tourism Officials See an Opportunity in Coronavirus

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As cases of the coronavirus continue to multiply in China, and concerns about the disease have led travelers to cancel upcoming trips to other Asian countries, tourism officials in Alaska see an opportunity.

Officials with Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Visit Anchorage, the tourism marketing organization for Alaska’s largest city, have begun lobbying airlines, travel agents and tour operators to increase airline service, reroute cruises and generally get the word out about the sights and attractions of the northernmost state.

The end goal? To draw visitors to Alaska who had wanted to go to Asia, as well as fill the hole created by Chinese tourists canceling trips to Alaska.

“Tour operators that were selling tour packages into Asia are seeing significant cancellations because of concerns about coronavirus, but people with those packages still want to travel somewhere,” said Jim Szczesniak, manager at the Anchorage airport. “What we’re working on is attracting the demand from those people who want to travel.”

The marketing initiative is geared toward travelers from Australia, Northern Europe and the continental United States.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Answers to your most common questions:

    Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. haswarned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all nonessential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world was not ready for a major outbreak.

“We just want people who were going to China to think of Alaska as a temporary replacement for a trip they can rebook to China in the future,” said Julie Saupe, president and chief executive of Visit Anchorage.

Officials with the airport have been in conversations with United Airlines about increasing service from Newark; with Delta Air Lines about increasing service from Atlanta as well as Minneapolis; and with American Airlines from Dallas. Internationally, the airport is also in talks with several Asian airlines, including Japan Airlines, Korean Airlines and China Airlines, about increasing service from Asian countries that have not been affected by Covid-19.

“Asia is really close to Alaska, about six hours from Tokyo to Anchorage, so there is a real opportunity for those carriers to reroute aircraft to Anchorage,” Mr. Szczesniak said.

Alaska isn’t the only tourist destination looking to lure tourists. An ad campaign attempts to convince Americans and Britons that Australia is a safe alternative, and in Japan, the “empty Kyoto” campaign promises travelers that if they visit the city now, they will have some of the most popular locations to themselves. In a Facebook video, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines encouraged people to travel around the country because “everything is safe in our country,” he said.

Visit Anchorage is working “a little more aggressively” with travel advisers, cruise providers and other tour operators to promote Alaska, Ms. Saupe said. The message is being sent through newsletters, in phone calls and at trade shows, she said.

The effort to bring more travelers to the state is also meant to make up, somewhat, for the drop in visitors from China.

Since 2013, the number of Chinese tourists to Alaska has increased by more than 70 percent, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association, with the state’s national parks and the Northern Lights among the main draws. But in recent weeks, as many cities in China are in forced lockdowns, Alaska, like other tourist destinations across the world, has seen a drop in Chinese visitors.

A recent survey conducted by Travel Leaders Network, a network of North American travel agencies, found that about 30 percent of agencies reported “a high to moderate number of cancellations for China and other parts of Asia,” but few cancellations for trips to Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska, supporting the expectation that people still want to travel, just not to Asia.

But not all travelers are sure they’ll want to get on a cruise ship that might have recently been in Asia.

Jennifer Walker, a travel adviser based in Illinois, said that some of her clients, who were interested in traveling to Alaska over the summer, decided to change their trip and travel to the East Coast of the United States because they were worried that the coronavirus could soon reach Alaska.

“Their thought is that coronavirus will likely move west to east in its spread, and when they see that the ship they were looking at has had issues like the Westerdam, they ask if the ship is clean,” Ms. Walker said. “I have to talk them off the ledge.”

Ms. Saupe said that people who visit Alaska from Europe and Australia tend to be in search of adventure, and they are usually willing to take a long trip, much like travelers who travel to Asia to backpack and see sites there.

“If you’re interested in the Great Wall and ancient sites, Alaska also offers spectacular natural sites,” she said. “Between the adventurous traveler and the cruise traveler, we share a lot of the same characteristics that are appealing to folks who would be visiting China.”

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