By RALPH SAMUELS
I was born and raised in Alaska and have had a job since I was 15-years-old. I don’t recall ever crying at work. Until yesterday.
I work for Holland America Line and Princess Cruises and the Alaska tour company we operate, HAP.
HAP operates the Princess Lodges, Westmark Hotels, a large bus company and a train company. It is a large and complex operation that generally spends the entire year planning on a five-month season and serves as a transportation and hotel company for hundreds of thousands of visitors to Alaska.
Yesterday, we notified civic leaders, business leaders, local government officials, federal officials and elected State leaders that HAP would not operate on the rail belt this summer. The 3,500 seasonal workers we normally hire will not be hired. The 34 restaurants and coffee shops we operate will not open, and the bed taxes and sales taxes our guests generate for local governments have simply disappeared.
The Denali Borough has a population of only about 1,400 residents, but 80% of their budget, mostly for their schools, comes directly from bed taxes. Those bed taxes are overwhelmingly generated by visitors who came off of cruise ships.
While cruise ships are the transportation of choice by which more than half of the visitors to Alaska make their way north, the backbone of the tourism industry are the dozens of tour operators that show off our State to people who have had it on their “bucket list” and have finally made their way here. The visitors may be adventurous, sedentary, old, young, single, with a large family, American or international. But they all want to see and feel Alaska. Mountains, rivers, wildlife, glaciers and our unique culture are all shown off by the small Alaska owned tour companies.
These small companies depend on our volumes of guests, and we depend on their tours to best experience Alaska. In the long term neither of us can succeed without the other.
Not operating HAP this year was a very difficult decision, knowing the impacts on communities and the small businesses that depend on our many guests. But as the potential opening of the business got pushed further and further back, the decision simply had to be made. We are not capable of hiring and training the necessary thousands of employees for a five-week season.
When advised of this decision, most people were not surprised, but that doesn’t mean they were not troubled. As difficult as it was to make those phone calls, it was much worse to receive them. Our hundreds of year-round employees were notified in the morning, and like the employees in many industries, they are also very concerned. A month ago, our staff was busy hiring seasonal mechanics, waitstaff, cooks, drivers, tour guides, luggage handlers, housekeepers, bartenders, and myriad others.
Critics of the cruise industry often don’t like our large size, but they usually fail to recognize the many individuals who make up our diverse, unique and dedicated work force – the true fabric of our company. They don’t know the guy from Salcha who started his career washing busses, and 25 years later has earned his position of managing almost 3,000 guest rooms spread all over remote Alaska.
The critics rarely meet the woman who trains and manages specialized tour guides year-round, and on weekends runs 100 mile footraces in Alaska in February. And they certainly don’t know the born-and-raised Alaskan and UAF graduate who serves as the Board President of the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. At our company, we have hundreds of individuals with their own unique stories who are vibrant members of our community, and collectively make tourism work for Alaska.
Our employees and our tour partners are essential to tourism in Alaska.
As I said a number of times on the phone yesterday, there isn’t much of a silver lining to the news of HAP not operating on the rail belt this summer. ATIA President Sarah Leonard summed it up best in a media report when she simply said, “It’s devastating.”
Here is where Alaskans can offer to help. Go flight-seeing, hike in Denali, go river rafting or on a kayak trip. Help out the small tour companies until we can resume the higher number of visitors that are required to sustain our visitor industry for the long term.
These small companies do a great job of showing off our state’s rare beauty and providing one-of-a-kind adventures, and they are all right here, in our own back yard.
Ralph Samuels is a lifelong Alaskan that has worked in aviation, public service, tourism, and even had a stint as a bartender. He is the Vice President of Holland America Group.