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Remarks by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves at the Travel and Tourism Roundtable with U.S. Senator Don Sullivan in Ketchikan, Alaska


Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you, Senator Sullivan, for the kind introduction and for welcoming me to Alaska. And thank you to all of you for participating in today’s important conversation.

In the last eighteen months, COVID-19 has impacted every community in America and across the world. We have seen firsthand how our families, our businesses, and our communities have been devastated by this unprecedented pandemic.

I know this region – and so many other tourist destinations around the country – have suffered a severe economic impact from the downturn in travel.

According to the Alaska Travel Industry Association, overall Alaskan visitor volume fell by an estimated 82% in 2020, creating a $2.2 billion and 27,800 job loss in the Alaskan economy.

And with all major cruise operations in Alaska cancelled in 2020, cruise visitor volume dropped from 1.33 million passengers in 2019 to 0 in 2020, crippling part of Alaska’s tourist-driven economy.

Sadly, I know the brunt of this has fallen on small businesses, like those here in Ketchikan and around the state, who often do not have the financial resources to make it through sharp and prolonged declines.

The good news is that the latest statistics show that tourism in Alaska – and across the United States – started to bounce back. That recovery, which began with our collective efforts to get more people vaccinated, will only continue if we improve our vaccination numbers nationally and across the globe to get more travelers up here to this beautiful part of the world.

We have seen time and time again how getting vaccines in arms is key to economic recovery, and we encourage Alaska’s businesses to take measures to motivate employees to receive their COVID-19 vaccination.

We also commend Alaskans for your perseverance in rebounding from pandemic lows as Americans sought opportunities to travel.

In fact, Alaska’s 2021 summer witnessed booming domestic tourism as Americans turned to National Parks and other outdoor attractions to escape COVID-19.

We also recognize the important role Senator Sullivan and his colleagues in the Alaskan congressional delegation played with their efforts on the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, which solved Passenger Vessel Service Act obstacles so major cruise ships could resume Alaskan service.

That, along with successful marketing efforts to attract travelers, brought many Alaskan destinations back to full capacity this summer and record bookings to towns, nature tours, and campsites.

At the Department of Commerce, we are committed to helping turn the tourism industry around as our economic recovery continues.

  • We have met with numerous airline industry executives and advocacy groups, including Airlines for America, US Travel Association, and Travel Management Coalition to discuss industry challenges and concerns.
  • We led coordination between the cruise industry and the CDC to facilitate cruising from Alaska and U.S. ports.
  • Conducted interagency discussions with the Department of Homeland Security and expert working groups to revamp international travel.

And as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, one of our bureaus, the Economic Development Administration, or EDA, was allocated $750 million to help states and communities that have suffered economic injury related to the travel and tourism industry.

Secretary Raimondo and I are committed to ensuring these funds are allocated equitably and in a way that reflects the losses in all 50 states.

We are bringing a whole of Commerce approach to travel and tourism-related matters. Not only engaging our National Travel and Tourism Office and EDA, but also bureaus like NOAA, which can look at issues around climate and its long-term effects on the industry.

We are also looking forward to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal’s investments in our airports, roads, bridges, and to expand our high-speed transit options.

I thank Senator Sullivan for his vote to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, containing billions for Alaska’s ferry system, rural sanitation, broadband access, highways, bridges, and electrical grid.

Senator Sullivan and Senator Murkowski’s votes helped deliver a major win for the country and Alaskans.

And we know that investing in infrastructure will also make America an even better travel destination than it is today.

I look forward to hearing from you on your thoughts as to what the Administration can do to accelerate the recovery and long-term growth of this sector.

Now I’ll turn it back to Senator Sullivan. Thank you!