Between the new-found fear of travel by air and the desperate attempts of Alaska communities to protect themselves from SARS-CoV-2, the global coronavirus has put a chokehold on the Alaska tourism industry, but still there remain those who lust to experience the land of the midnight sun in its summer splendor.
Back in Sharon Springs, New York, a tiny town of less than 600 some 150 miles north of the worst of the nation’s COVID-19 death and chaos in what is widely known as the “Big Apple,” Steve Hotaling dreams his dreams of the wild north.
“I would move there to get the hell out of New York like my parents did, but my wife doesn’t like the cold,” he texted Friday.
Instead, he is settling for a vacation in the land where the last American frontier still wrestles with the last American wilderness, and Hotaling not about to abandon that vacation come hell or high COVID.
“I just wanna go fishing and get away from all the stuff going on around here,” he said. “I am more worried about the riots than the COVID stuff.”
New York City has been rocked by protests since a cop in Minneapolis killed 46-year-old George Floyd by kneeling on his neck while he pleaded that he could not breathe. The law enforcement officer who committed that act has been charged with murder and is in jail. Three other law enforcement officers on the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s death.
But that has not satisfied protesters in cities across the country. Most of the protests – as was the case with one in Anchorage – have been peaceful, but New York City erupted into violence. ABC7 News in the city described the neighborhood of “SoHo like a war zone after stores destroyed by looters, riots during George Floyd protests.”
That is more than four and a half times the U.S. national average of 339 per million, and close to three and half times the rate in Sweden, a country that has been criticized for taking a too lackadaisical approach to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Given the death toll in the U.S. Northeast – COVID-19 fatality leader New York is followed in the national rankings by New Jersey with 1,367 per million dead; Connecticut, 1,137 per millions dead; and Massachusetts, 1,058 per million dead, according to Worldometers – some have suggested Alaska should market itself as the place to escape from big city death and madness.
Though many Alaskans worry about COVID-19, the state death rate of 14 per million is less than 1 percent of that of New York and second only to that of Hawaii among U.S. states, according to Worldomters.
Maybe a COVID-19 safe zone in a land that state labor economist Neil Fried has already suggested as a climate-change refuge could attract some tech entrepreneurs to help offset the economic losses expected from two of the biggest and most important industries – tourism and petrochemical production – being unable to convert to work-at-home operations.
While the visitor industry has been hit by travel restrictions and travelers’ fears, the oil industry has been torpedoed by a drop in global demand for oil as businesses everywhere have slow down or shut down.
The state’s mystique has always been its best sales pitch and clearly that remains. There is a market for what Anchorage once promoted as the “Big Wild Life” and what the Alaska Travel Industry Association in 1995 warned baby boomers they should see “B4UDIE.”
Bucket lists haven’t gone away. COVID-19 might even remind some people that those lists could be closer than once thought.
Hotaling said he’s seriously looking forward to escaping America to do some fishing in what many consider an angler’s paradise.
“I don’t consider myself a tourist,” he added. “LOL. I am just a normal, real person and I don’t know if I would advertise Alaska a place to escape, but on the other hand, the people causing the issues (here) may need a month dropped in the mountains to figure out their life.
“If they survive and make it out, I bet they never act like this again.”
The Floyd protests have left many Americans with mixed feelings. Some demonstrations that started out as well-intentioned protests against police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death have deteriorated into little but street rage against almost everything.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that left the newspapers’ staff angry that he had been allowed to accuse U.S. “elites” of having excused an orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters.”
Journalists, psychologists and experts of various sorts from the East Coast to the West Coast are now debating what went wrong to spark the violence. Alaska has its own problems with violence – the data indicates this is a dangerous state in which to be a woman and even more so a woman in some rural areas – but it is easy to think of the far north as a wild place steeped in wild beauty and unsullied by the problems of humankind.
That is the state’s tourism market niche. In many ways, it is probably more saleable now than ever.
The problematic question is how to get people here with cruise lines shut down for the summer, some airlines in serious financial trouble, and many travelers simply afraid. Some, like Hotaling, will continue to come, but 53 percent told The Harris Poll in late May that they were “putting off leisure travel until at least 2021.”
An earlier poll found 48 percent saying they weren’t flying until the pandemic is over, and how that might be defined is anyone’s guess given that some virologists now believe COVID-19 might linger on forever like a deadlier version of the common flu as Connor Bamford from Queen’s University Belfast wrote in The National Interests.
A 50 percent cut in travel this year could cost the Alaska economy $2.5 billion or more. Continuing fears of COVID-19 would only make things worse.
Clearly the state is going to need to find a whole lot more Hotalings.