Alaska is open for visitors!

That was the message shared by local and state tourism officials last week (April 20) during the virtual event “Live from Alaska, hosted by Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA).”

“Alaska is open and doing an exceptional job managing the pandemic,” said Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of ATIA. “Partly because we know how to social distance in our wide-open spaces, but mostly because our state did a phenomenal job with the vaccine rollout.”

Leonard said 40 percent of adults over 16 in Alaska are already fully vaccinated and 47 percent have had at least one vaccine shot.

“By May we expect everyone in Alaska who wants to be vaccinated will be,” she said.

Alaska depends on tourism, and with big-ship cruise operations shut down for now, the potential loss to the gross state product is over $3.3 billion, according to statistics from Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“Everyone was hit hard in this pandemic, but Alaska’s cruising industry really took the biggest hit,” Leonard said.

That shutdown impacts many small, locally owned stores, tour operators, restaurants and other services.

She noted that cruises are operating by small, U.S.-flagged operators such as American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions, UnCruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises. Small yacht companies also are operating.

But Alaska also is courting independent travelers to visit Alaska and travel the state by road, small planes, the Alaska Railroad, ferries on the Alaska Marine Highway and more. Some operators are offering self-guided road trip packages and some incorporate lodges.

“We don’t have actual booking data, but anecdotally we hear from many lodges and land operators that the phones are ringing,” Leonard said.

Air service is up at the main airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and projected to reach or exceed prepandemic levels, said Scott Habberstad, director of sales and community marketing for Alaska Airlines.

“When there’s lots of capacity from the airline industry, prices go down,” he said.

Still, the state does highly recommend COVID-19 testing before entering Alaska, and the tourism officials said health protocols may vary in each community, especially remote villages. Also, some restaurants and shops might be closed on certain days, so flexibility and advance research is urged.

The ATIA website includes health recommendations here.

The state plans to start offering free COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone arriving in the Anchorage, Ketchikan, Juneau and Fairbanks airports, starting June 1, a move that is part of the governor’s tourism aid package.

Still, negative COVID-19 test results are highly recommended.

“Alaska’s travel mandates and orders are now travel advisories,” the website states. “These processes and best practices, although not required, are still encouraged by the ATIA and Governor Dunleavy’s administration.”

The guidance asks travelers – even those who are fully vaccinated – to provide proof of a negative molecular-based test 72 hours before departure by uploading negative results into the Alaska Travel Portal.

Nonresidents can get a free test upon arrival at the airport and should quarantine at personal expense while waiting on results.

Fully vaccinated travelers should still follow the CDC’s recommendations such as mask-wearing, social distancing, hand washing and use of hand sanitizer.

In a nutshell, “Alaska is open for business,” Habberstad said. “We’ve been socially distancing here in Alaska before it was hip. We have more critters than people.”