Tourism/Visitors in the Y-K Delta Region

by Homer Hunter

The following article is a short research assignment that I wrote and when I studied Introduction to Tourism as part of my financial aid requirements during this past spring. I found a source (Alaska Traveler’s Survey, A Profile of Visitors to Rural Alaska) that initially describes rural tourism and specifically “four distinct regions of Alaska” which was prepared by the McDowell Group, Inc. in 2005 for and on behalf of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development to provide information of a profile of non-cruise visitors who experienced parts of rural Alaska and what it was like to spend overnight to a few days at the most.
The other brief research that I found was done by the same contractor in 2016 on the numbers of visitors that come to our State of Alaska and how much money they spend in Alaska as you will read below. I am also making my own comments right after the conclusion of my research.
A. How many visitors come to your community or region and write what you find.
In 1993, Bethel, which then had a population of over 5800 people including the nearby Kuskokwim villages (Yukon Kuskokwim Heritage Center) was one of the first rural regions to be studied by the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development for it’s Rural “Alaska Tourism Infrastructure Needs Assessment” in the Lower Yukon and Kuskokwim Delta (Yukon Kuskokwim Heritage Center).
The study found that Bethel had a small potential for tourism and that most visitors that came to Bethel came for business and only “a few for pleasure” (Tourism Data, page 20). According to the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program, it was found that only 1000 visitors from out of state visitors come to the Bethel area (Yukon Kuskokwim Heritage Center, page 21) in comparison to the 1.5 million visitors that come to Alaska annually.
The numbers may have changed a lot because the study and data gathered was done in 1993. Due to the lack of research data, it is not known exactly how many outside visitors come to Bethel or to the outlying villages located in both the Kuskokwim and Yukon villages.
For definition purposes, Bethel and the surrounding area were lumped together as Southwest Alaska along with the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutians, Bristol Bay, and Kodiak. These regions make up the State statistics. (Yukon Kuskokwim Heritage Center, page 20).
Many of the visitors that come to the Yukon and Kuskokwim region were mainly attracted to fishing and hunting activities in the summer time. The Yukon and Kuskokwim encompasses about 48,000 square miles and it was designated as the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
When they arrived in Bethel, they would overnight in a hotel or motel and continued to their destinations such as to Quinhagak located 85 miles northwest of Bethel in the Kuskokwim area.
In the Yukon area, St. Mary’s was also selected by DCCED (Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development) when McDowell, Inc. was chosen to do the studies and collection for the Alaska Travelers Survey during 2005 (Profile of Visitors to Rural Alaska).
Dillingham is another town (and almost with the same population as Bethel) that was also chosen for McDowell’s Alaska’s Travelers Survey because of its rich resources in fisheries and popular rod and reel fishing camps in the Kanektok and Arolik within the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
One of the reasons why tourism in Bethel is not bringing in good numbers of visitors is because hotels and restaurants “are not marketed” (Business Travelers, page 22). This information was brought up by Agnew Beck Consultants when hotel operators were interviewed (Business Travelers, page 22). This includes the Native Arts and Crafts that sometimes get displayed in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta regional hospital and the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural and Museum Center that is open Monday to Saturday located near the Kuskokwim Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The other potential tourist attraction is the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters which has large meeting rooms and displays some native arts and crafts.
B. What is the economic impact of tourism on your community or region?
The economic impact in my region, the communities of Bethel and St. Mary’s is hard to tell because they were lumped together as the Southwest region with the communities of Togiak, Iliamna, and Dillingham in the Bristol Bay region, Katmai – a little further to the south, Dutch Harbor and Unalaska in the Aleutian region, and St. Paul and St. George on the Pribilof Island. At the present, I am aware that the Scammon Bay Traditional Council in my village is taking the lead in the economic feasibility study of eco-tourism for bird watching in the very near future.
In April of 2016, the State of Alaska under the Division of Economic Development within the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, published a report entitled Economic Impact of Alaska Visitor’s Industry prepared by McDowell. In this report, 2,066,800 visitors came to Alaska and showed an increase of 7% from 1.9 million in 2013-2014 to 2.07 million in 2014-2015 and both showed an increase of 5% and 7% in the winter and months.
Total spending for all regions by visitors was 1.94 billion dollars during 2014 and 2015. Here is how it was broken down in regions: Southcentral had the highest spending of $866 million or 45 percent. Southeast was the second highest with $622 million or 32 percent, Interior at $336 million or 17 percent, the Southwest region at 5 percent, and the Far North had the lowest at only 1 percent. (page 2, Economic Impact of Alaska’s Visitor Industry, 2014-15).
Five percent multiplied by1.94 billion dollars equals to 9.7 million and the distribution is unevenly spread to the 7 communities in the southwest region. In terms of job creation and income, Southwest region had 4 percent for employment and 2 percent of income out of the total of 39,700 jobs, 9 percent of statewide employment and 5 percent of statewide labor income (page 3, Economic Impact of Alaska’s Visitor’s Industry).
C. Is Tourism increasing or decreasing in your community/region? At what rate?
No reliable data for this question.
Based on the UAF course in tourism I studied and some research I extracted, outside visitors or tourists have shown strong interest to return to Bethel and to explore our villages in the Yukon and in Kuskokwim but something is lacking that prohibits them from exploring Bethel and the Y-K villages.
Worldwide, tourism is a trillion-dollar industry. Look at how many visitors came to Alaska in 2016 – over 2 million visitors and they spent 2 billion dollars. The economic impact is huge in southcentral and southeast Alaska. They could spend more money in the rural regions and even in the remotest villages and they are very eager to visit and spend their monies in our villages.
Studies are showing up that nature tourism is becoming the biggest demand and Alaska villages are no exception. If your village is considering or planning eco-tourism, be involved by participating at their meetings and offer your ideas and input on how and what you would like to see tourism operated and managed.
Make sure the visitors will have a decent place to eat and sleep. A bed and breakfast inn or hotel is what they will expect to see if your village becomes a tourist attraction.
One of the age groups that has been studied are the retired people in their late 60’s and 70’s that are returning every year to Alaska because they need to get away from polluted cities and see the wonders of nature, the majestic mountains, the scenic rivers and ocean and because they want to spend their monies on airfare, on ferries, on cruise ships, on buses, on trains, and on hotels and on restaurants.
What is it that is preventing more tourists from reaching our communities and spending their $ thousand into our poor economies? The studies are telling us that outside visitors are flying into Alaska and more visitors are taking cruise ships.
What about railroads? The Alaska Visitor Industry has all the statistics of how many tourists or visitors arrive into Fairbanks and into Anchorage. One of the most popular sites mentioned in the studies is the popular Mt. Denali mountain accessible by train and by tour buses.
During the tourist season, tour buses and the Alaska Railroad are busy on a daily-basis, transporting hundreds of visitors every day to the designated stop-layovers near Mt. Denali to do what they love the most – watching and taking photos of the spectacular mountain and the wild game or wildlife surrounding the mountain, spending the night in the bed and breakfast inns, camping in the designated camps with live cabins or tents, and exploring the beautiful environment or fishing for trout from the rivers and streams.
I think it is about time parts of rural Alaska be connected by railroad from Anchorage and from Fairbanks where hundreds of visitors arrive daily (in the tourist season) to do more traveling.
Construction of railroads and roads linking the regional commercial and transportation hubs and even constructing roads to the villages will not only bring in more tourists and feed the economy of our region, it will inevitably reduce the high cost of freight prices and retail prices in the village stores.
Everything is expensive in the rural villages especially the energy costs (fuel and electricity), which has had multiplier effects on store prices, postal freight, and commercial airfare.
In 1980, a drum of stove-oil used to cost $121 in Scammon Bay. Today a drum of gas or stove-oil costs $365. That is an increase of 201.7% in about 38 years.
From 1997 to the last increase in about 2010, the passenger round-trip airfare from Scammon Bay to Bethel increased from $296 to $520, an increase of 43%. And this is just two of many examples of skyrocketing prices in rural villages in just a little over three decades.
Because the economy of the State of Alaska is dependent on the price per barrel of crude oil, there is very little chance that the cost of fuel prices will decrease and every $1 increase in the price of oil makes the cost of energy very expensive in rural Alaska (Ruralite, July 2018).
I am convinced that the solution to reducing the high costs of living in the rural villages is to connect the regional commercial and transportation hubs with construction of railroads to the urban cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks. This will also mean constructing and connecting roads from the villages to the regional commercial and transportation hubs such as in Bethel, Aniak, St. Mary’s and Hooper Bay in our region.
In the long run, the regional economies will be improved by allowing controlled eco-tourism in the villages where jobs and self-employment can be created in the Bethel and Kusilvak Census Area, the most expensive cost of living region with the most unemployed rate and the poorest census area in the United States of America.
I urge the village people and their village leaders to start voicing their opinions. There is nothing to lose. We have the largest Alaska Native forum, the Alaska Federation of Natives. We can collectively make things happen when we work together with “one mind” and because we have the political power.
Yukon Kuskokwim Heritage Center, Internet Research, 1993
McDowell Group, Inc., Profile of Visitors to Rural Alaska
Economic of Alaska’s Visitors Industry, 2014-2015, McDowell Group, Inc.
Homer Hunter is a resident of Scammon Bay, Alaska.