Alaska's plan to boost tourism - offer COVID-19 vaccinations to visitors

(AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)

The Republican governor of Alaska, Mike Dunleavy, has a plan to bring back Alaskan tourism. He announced a plan to offer COVID-19 vaccinations at several of the state’s airports. Starting on June 1, travelers flying into Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Ketchikan can receive a vaccination in a clinic outside the security area.

Alaska is dependent on tourism and the state’s economy has taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic. Governor Dunleavy made the announcement at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. He outlined plans for a national marketing campaign aimed at tourists using federal aid money in the American Rescue Plan Act. He said that offering the vaccine is “probably another good reason to come to the state of Alaska in the summer.” The state has a larger supply than demand. It was the first state to drop restrictions on who could get a COVID-19 vaccine. Last month it opened eligibility to anyone 16 or older who lives or works in the state.

State Public Health Director Heidi Hedberg says it’s time to get vaccinated and the state will not distinguish between residents of Alaska and non-residents. State residents can also get vaccinated in the airport clinics when they come to pick up air travelers.

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.”

The governor suggests the state can provide holidays from paying certain licenses and fees to help support tourism. The details on expenditures will depend on what Lt. Gov. Meyer hears on her listening tour. She plans to begin a two-week trip to meet with tourism-related businesses and community leaders. Particularly hard hit are the communities in Southeast Alaska who are dependent on 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. Dunleavy hasn’t ruled out suing the federal government, as Florida did, over restrictions placed on large cruise ships which have kept them away from Alaska for a year.

Dunleavy’s plan includes $325 million for relief for businesses and other organizations and $325 million for infrastructure investments. His examples of infrastructure investments are of the traditional kind – not the made-up descriptions of infrastructure currently being tossed around in Washington by Democrats. He mentioned investments in safe water, sewers, and broadband. Also included is $80 million for “protecting Alaskans” – funds for response calls in domestic violence emergencies brought on by the pandemic, as well as support for food security issues.

The vaccination gimmick sounds like a good way to think outside the box to encourage the return of tourists and help get local businesses back on their feet. The state’s vaccination rate is good, compared to other states, with 40% of eligible Alaskans ages 16 and older. The airport program will offer the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. With other states finding vaccination allotments increasing, a tourist can get the first dose upon arrival in Alaska, and then, if their visit is over by the time a second dose is due, the tourists can arrange to get the second dose at home.

Alaska will do a test run, a “soft rollout”, at the Anchorage airport for five days in late April, between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m., to work through logistics. This includes using an existing contractor for mobile vaccination clinics and the trial would be for Alaskans traveling in and through the airport.

Perhaps some of the ex-pat Americans traveling back to the United States to get their vaccinations will head to Alaska. Americans living overseas are finding it difficult to get vaccinated, mostly due to the very slow roll-out of the shots in places like Europe. Distribution issues of the vaccines have been complicated by the suspension of vaccines by AstraZeneca in several countries. Ex-pats are making the decision to travel back to the U.S. after hearing Biden set April 19 as the date all U.S. adults would be eligible to receive the vaccine. Some are hesitant, though, out of fear that it will complicate them receiving vaccine passports in their countries of residence.

Alaska will welcome vaccination tourism. It’s a smart idea that is a win-win for those seeking a vaccination, for people eager to get out and travel again, and for businesses trying to hang in there during the pandemic.