The Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) recently published the results of its survey of Alaska candidates for federal office.
Of the 18 federal candidates, only Democrat Mark Begich and Republicans Mead Treadwell and David Seaward responded to ATIA. Begich is running for re-election to the Senate, while Treadwell, the state’s current lieutenant governor, is one of several Republicans attempting to replace him. Seaward is former mayor of the city of Seward and is running against long-time incumbent Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
All three respondents support federal efforts to boost tourism, including funding of Brand USA, created to market the United States as a destination for international travelers. Begich touted the foundation of the Senate Tourism Caucus, as well as his cosponsorship of the bill that established Brand USA.
The candidates all support expansion of the Visa Waiver Program. Currently, citizens of 38 countries may travel to the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days. Most of these countries are members of the European Union.
Treadwell wrote, “Our customs and visa procedures frustrate business and tourism, and while I want more secure borders for our country, I believe we have many hurdles now which discourage visitation.” He described a program allowing Alaska Natives to visit relatives in Russia as “stuck in bureaucratic neverland.”
There were differences of opinion regarding federal lands. While Seaward said his experience as mayor with Kenai Fjords National Park was positive, Treadwell wrote, “Too often, we have seen the federal government restrict access at the expense of Alaskans’ traditional uses for subsistence, hunting and fishing, backcountry travel and aviation.” Treadwell said that, if elected, he would seek a federal law that would require federal agencies, like the National Park Service (NPS), to obtain state approval for plans on federal lands in Alaska.
Begich suggested that difficulties accessing federal lands were a reflection of budgetary constraints. “These cuts have strained the ability for agencies to process special use and other types of permits. This is unacceptable,” he wrote.
Begich also mentioned that facilities like Glacier Bay Lodge must stay open to tourism on federal land. NPS recently modified its prospectus for commercial operation of the lodge, which has been run by Aramark for the last ten years. The new contract would reduce the number of sailings for which the operator would be responsible and lower the minimum passenger capacity of the vessels while transferring the exterior maintenance responsibilities to NPS. The moves would shift some of the burden from the private operator but would reduce the park access advocated by Begich and Treadwell.
In a question about transportation infrastructure, ATIA wrote, “Reliable federal funding for highway improvements, road and bridge projects, other continuing maintenance, and funding for scenic byways, are matters important to many tourism businesses.” The organization specifically mentioned the current surface transportation bill, dubbed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, passed in 2012.
Begich wrote that he had supported MAP-21.
I have worked with Senator [Lisa] Murkowski and Congressman Young to ensure that our funding formulas were protected in past reauthorization bills and will continue to do so. We have also worked together on behalf of the Alaska Railroad, a popular asset used by Alaskans and visitors alike.
Begich hinted at the difficulties in bringing federal dollars back to Alaska in the absence of earmarking.
Federal funds for the Alaska Railroad were largely eliminated from the Senate version of Map-21. In an anti-earmark atmosphere, the Senate considered the Alaska Railroad a majority freight operation and ineligible for funds designed to support year-round passenger rail. However, Young was appointed to the conference committee to unite the House and Senate versions of the bill and restored the railroad’s funding.
Even with Young’s efforts, a drafting error in the funding formula of MAP-21 led to Alaska Railroad layoffs.
Of MAP-21, Treadwell pointed to the congressional battle occurring over an extension. “It is vitally important that the short-term transportation package continues to ensure our nation’s many infrastructure projects remain active, and keeps the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) solvent in successive months,” he wrote. “Failing to address the HTF shortfall will put many Alaskan jobs at risk.”
Since Treadwell’s response, Congress has passed a short-term extension using a controversial budgeting tool called pension smoothing. Senators called the House funding a “gimmick,” but were forced to take action before the August break and the prospect of federal rationing of transportation funds to the states. The extension will keep transportation funds flowing until May.
Seaward described MAP-21 as “a fiscally responsible reducing [sic] the national debt.” He added that “the gas tax should directly be used to [sic] for highways and roads. Recent audit showed the gas tax was used for other purposes.”
It is unclear to which audit or other purposes Seaward is referring. An audit in Massachusetts did uncover misuse of federal funds, as mentioned by the Massachusetts-specific website tankthegastax.org.
The survey question on the subject with the greatest potential impact on the Alaska tourism industry begins, “As our climate changes and Arctic waters become more easily accessible for visitors, this will open additional opportunities for Alaska tourism industry growth in this region.”
The Northwest Passage has an exotic appeal for many travelers. In 2008, about 400 German tourists arrived unannounced in Barrow. The cruise ship/apartment complex The World sailed the Northwest Passage in 2012, and Crystal Cruises says it will attempt the route with over 1,000 passengers in 2016. Both included Nome on their itineraries.
Both Begich and Treadwell mentioned the importance of the Coast Guard in their responses. Begich, who touted his efforts for additional Coast Guard cutter and icebreaker funds, wrote, “From a tourism/shipping perspective, Arctic communities need to be able to handle international visitors, health emergencies, and vessel disasters if they arise.”
Treadwell expressed concerns about the growing influence of Russia and Canada in Arctic waters. Begich suggested the United Nation Law of the Sea Treaty as a source of regulation of shipping and resource extraction. The treaty would establish clear boundaries for nations and reinforce the sovereignty of nations within those boundaries, while also leveling the playing field between developed and developing countries. It was rejected by Ronald Reagan in 1982.
Seaward suggested that the port of Seward will be a dependable base for Arctic vessels in the future.
The responses of the three candidates are not surprising. What is surprising is that only three of 18 candidates responded. By comparison, when Alaskans passed a $50 passenger head tax, Gov. Sean Parnell rushed to reduce the tax and placate the cruise industry.
Tourism is the second largest piece of the Alaska economy. The ATIA Board of Directors includes representatives of some pretty heavy hitters in the industry, including Alaska Airlines, Princess Cruises and Holland America.
While candidates for office are undoubtedly approached by a variety of organizations, all of which demand time and attention, it may not be politically expedient for so many candidates to ignore the ATIA in a post-Citizens United world.