Tourism industry calls on lawmakers to fund marketing
The weather might not have been prettier on the Whittier side of the tunnel Sunday, but for Alaska's summer tourism season, the quiet sidewalks under a gray drizzly sky are part of the calm before the storm.
"It's just starting to pick up," explained Kelly Bender with Lazy Otter Charters Inc. "About the second, third week of May, it starts getting really busy."
The tiny waterfront town is expecting its first cruise ship to dock next weekend, bringing hundreds of visitors ready to experience wild Alaska and spend money doing so.
"They keep saying tourism is the bright spot and it is is. People are still investing and growing, people want to come to Alaska, but you have to make sure that people know we're here and that it's accessible and easy to get to. You have to promote your business, and tourism is the State of Alaska's business," said Bender.
Bender says her business is investing in expansion this year. They're awaiting the arrival of a fourth vessel, one that can accommodate larger groups of 20 to 30 passengers.
"It's a huge step. It's exciting, but it's very scary too because we certainly have to fill that boat," said Bender.
The uncertainty in her business comes from Juneau. The State that used to spend $16.5 million on marketing for tourism spent only $1.5 last year.
Bender says the legislature mandated that the tourism industry find a way to fund itself but that plan is stalled pending action by lawmakers.
Now, the $3 million Governor Bill Walker included for tourism marketing in his version of the capital budget has been removed by the Senate.
"Now, we're pretty panicked," said Bender, explaining small family businesses like hers just don't have the ability to market themselves to people living outside of Alaska.
The full cuts are not set in stone. The capital budget still has to go through multiple votes, including one by the full Senate and then another in the House, where changes can be made.
In the House, Representative Jason Grenn (I-Anchorage) says he's received about 50 emails from people requesting that those funds be restored.
"Just like Coca-Cola doesn't stop advertising even though everyone knows who Coca-Cola is, Alaska -- we can't be complacent and say, 'Okay, we're good, we can stop talking about ourselves and rely on just our reputation and other people talking about it,'" said Grenn.
Bender is hoping the message from her industry to lawmakers is clear: "It's not a giveaway, it's an important business decision."
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