For many decades the travel industry has been a growing part of Alaska's economy. In more recent years, the advent of more affordable travel options has really opened Alaska up to adventurous vacationers from the Lower 48 and beyond.
What is unique about the state's travel industry is that there is only a small window -- a few summer months -- when most of the revenue and benefits from tourism are seen.
Now the bad news: It looks like a major tourism slump is in the works.
According to a recent poll released by the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the 2002 summer tourist outlook is not good. Cruise bookings are down 24 percent. Hotel reservations are down 26 percent. Airline bookings are down 23 percent. Package tours are down 20 percent.
If this projected decline becomes a reality, the summer season could be a tough one for many businesses that rely directly and indirectly on the summer tourist season for their survival year round.
That's why the travel association has asked the state Legislature for $12 million in emergency marketing funding. The association wants to use the funding to aggressively market Alaska to those travelers who are still pondering where to go and what to do during the summer months.
In passing its version, the House knocked $6 million off the travel association's request. The measure now is creeping through the Senate. On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved a plan to allocate $6 million for such funding, but tied the appropriation to matching funds from the travel industry.
Whatever is finally approved, it must be done quickly. As Tina Lindgren, the association president, said: ''Every day we delay, someone is making a decision about taking a trip.''
Some have complained that in a year of tight state budgets this emergency funding request should not be a priority. But don't be fooled: This money won't help only hotels and airlines. The impact of tourism is felt throughout Alaska and the Interior, even when it's not immediately obvious.
The most important thing about tourists? They spend money and then they leave. They pay for hotel rooms -- usually multiple nights -- paying not only for the room but the 8 percent bed tax generates millions each year. They eat most meals in local restaurants; whether that is fast food or fine dining, the end result is money into our economy and the support of local jobs. They purchase souvenirs, supporting local artisans and gift shops.
Although the larger corporations often garner the most attention regarding their economic impact, the reality is that small businesses are the backbone of our community's economy, and they will be the first to feel a significant reduction in summer visitors. Unfortunately, they also are the least able to easily bounce back from a major tourism downturn.
We urge the state Legislature to move quickly on this measure. The tourism association has asked for emergency funding because time is of the essence. Wasting days means losing opportunities.
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