State begins economic development courtship with China
Alaska has a plan to court China visitors. The blueprints can be found in Iceland.
Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken recently returned last week from China and a meeting to review the state's plan with airlines executives
He and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport executives Jim Szczesniak and Trudy Wassel were there trying to drum up passenger business for Alaska.
The trip underscores Gov. Bill Walker’s China trade mission next month when he hopes to build upon the longstanding economic relationship between Alaska and China, which is the state’s top export partner.
“This was really a precursor to the governor’s trade mission in May, so there is a possibility there could be some follow on meetings in May,” Luiken said. “I think that we still have some work to do. The thing that we learned is the way the Chinese develop air services is different from the way the U.S develops air service.”
On Thursday, Walker’s office released a list of companies and government entities that will participate in the trade show. Corporations from Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su Borough will join Walker and members of Walker’s administration next month.
Companies representing higher education, tourism, Alaska Native corporations, seafood and transportation logistics head the list. Even a beer company and baby food company will join the delegation.
Among them are: Matson, Nana Regional, Bering Straits Native and Sealaska Corp., Trident and Copper River Seafoods, Bambino’s Baby Food, Alyeska Resort & Hotel and Chena Hot Springs Resort and Holdings.
On Wednsday, Luiken said he and Anchorage airport officials laid some ground work.
They shared the passenger business model used by Icelandair, which markets Reykjavik as a gateway to Europe from North America.
Luiken says he would like to see Alaska become China’s link to the rest of North America.
“That’s what we’re trying to show," Luiken said. “You have partner airlines in the U.S. who can build a route structure where you can connect right here in Anchorage then deliver your folks to the Lower 48, and in some cases, and ideally, after they’ve spent some time in Alaska.
“Chinese tourists want to do some kind of ecotourism event as well as visit a major city. Alaska offers that – in spades. And so, here’s a great opportunity for Chinese to see someplace that (China) President Xi has identified as a mystical and magical.”
Anchorage Airport General Manager Szczesniak said Iceland’s plan works because it has one major airline that can take passengers from the U.S. to Iceland and then to Europe.
Alaska would have to coordinate routes with several U.S. and China-based airlines to develop a similar plan.
“I have to get Chinese carriers to come here and then connect them with their U.S. partners to do this operation,” Szczesniak said. “Instead of having one airline to pull this off, I have to figure out ways to get multiple airlines to pull this off.”
Luiken said last summer about 700 Asian tourists visited Alaska each week, but they arrived from other U.S. cities-- not directly from China.
Luiken said the state wants to piggyback its formidable strong air cargo service between Alaska and China. There are 20 daily flights between Shanghai and Anchorage and another 20 a day between Anchorage and Hong Kong.
Luiken, Szczesnaik and Wassel met with air carrier and aviation executives from northern China city Harbin – an Anchorage sister city – and Heilongjang Provence.
Szczesniak says the ability to use narrow-body aircraft such as the new Boeing 737 Max and the Airbus A321 can make the trans-Pacific trip more viable.
“We can get to northern Chinese cities from Anchorage with those aircraft,” he said. “Traditionally, you would have to do a wide-body operation to get U.S. to China service. Now we’ve the opportunity to pitch services using a narrow body.”
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