With Iceland and Portugal leading the way in reopening for international tourism, people from coast to coast have been waiting to see when and how the United States will follow suit.
Over 18 times bigger than Portugal and 16 times bigger than Iceland, Alaska is the first US state to allow all tourists to enter, so long as the traveler has a negative COVID test result, following in the mold first developed by Iceland.
What does this mean for travelers with Alaska trips already booked, or those of us keen to visit Alaska—or anywhere—this year?
We sat down with Classic Journeys founder Edward Piegza, and our panel of expert Alaska insiders, including hoteliers Maria from Alyeska Resort, Jara from Harbor 360 Hotel and Rachelle from Lands End Resort, as well as our Anchorage-based guides Erik, Frederique and Steve to talk about what traveling in Alaska will be like in the ‘new normal’’.
Why is Alaska able to reopen for tourism ahead of the rest of North America?
Frederique: “Alaska has done a great job at managing the virus. We responded quickly when the situation first arose and have followed guidelines on social distancing and sanitization.”
Edward: “The state has announced that everyone arriving must have a valid, negative COVID test, which means it can allow tourism to resume while controlling the spread of the virus.”
Maria from Alyeska Resort: “Because we are the biggest state in the USA, with the lowest population density, and because a lot of our attractions are outdoors, we are well-set up for travel in the age of coronavirus. There are a lot of similarities between Alaska and Iceland, which was the first country to open for international tourism.”
What is the status of coronavirus in Alaska?
Jara from Harbor 360 Hotel “Alaska has the lowest number of cases of all US states.This is the CDC map of the USA, we are the white-colored state at the bottom left.”
Erik: “I’ve been checking our numbers and comparing them New York City. The difference is enormous:
NYC number of cases per 100,000 people: 2491.9 (171,446 total)
Alaska number of cases per 100,000 people: 76.3 (563 total)
Of course, it makes sense that New York would have more cases and more cases per thousand than Alaska, but it is still a bit staggering to see that we have 32 times fewer cases per 1000 than NYC. .
We have been able to move into phase 3 of 4, which means that all businesses can reopen and tourism can resume.”
How has Alaska so been successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus?
Rachelle from Lands End Resort “We have been vigorous with testing. The total number of tests taken is now above 66,000 and there are testing sites all over the state. The government has been stockpiling PPE and supporting and boosting our healthcare systems.”
Steve: “The Alaska Department of Health activates a statewide contact tracing network whenever a positive test occurs, which allows us to contain the virus. There is a mandated 14-day quarantining for positive cases, and Alaskans have strict social distancing guidelines.”
Is Alaska going to implement a 14-day quarantine after arrival?
Edward: “No, unless you refuse testing, test positive for COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who tests positive.”
Steve: “Instead of quarantining, travelers must fill in the Alaska Travel Declaration Form and test negative for coronavirus.”
So will Alaska be offering COVID testing for travelers?
Maria: “Yes, for anyone who arrives in Alaska and doesn’t have valid negative test results, the state is providing free coronavirus tests. It looks like the test will be free to start with, and after a while there will be a charge. No-one will be able to enter and travel around Alaska without being tested and confirmed coronavirus-free.”
Jara: “Note that Maria said ‘for anyone who doesn’t have test results’ because travelers can take the test at home before arriving. This way you can arrive in Alaska, show your negative results and travel freely without having to wait for a test and then wait for results.”
UPDATE: Travelers are required to pay for COVID-19 tests ($250) taken upon arrival in Alaska. Travelers are recommended to take a COVID test before they depart, and arrive with qualifying negative results to avoid having to self-quarantine while waiting for results.
If I opt to take the test in Alaska, how long will results take?
Steve: “The tests take anything from a few hours up to 72 hours”
Will I have to wait in the airport until I get results?
Edward: “No, you can travel to your destination and wait there.You will be required to self-quarantine until you are medically cleared, which means basing yourself in your hotel, staying outdoors, keeping away from other people, etc. You can choose how to receive results, by text, email, phone or app. Once you have them, you can continue with your trip.”
What about people who take the test before arriving. How recently does the test have to have been taken?
Frederique: “Within 72 hours. If the test was taken over 72 hours but under 5 days, it’s still valid but you will probably have to take a second test (which you will be given a voucher for) after 7-14 days.”
There are a few types of COVID tests out there, can I take any test to enter Alaska?
Steve: “No, you need to take the COVID-19 PCR swab test, which is the same test they are using throughout the state. An antibody test won’t be accepted.”
Is anyone exempt from testing?
Edward: “Children under 2 don’t have to take the COVID test. Anyone who proves they have had and recovered from coronavirus won’t have to take a test. Also, anyone who commits to 14 days quarantine instead of testing.”
You mentioned the State of Alaska Travel Declaration Form, which needs to be completed and provided with a negative test. What can you tell us about this?
Erik: “It’s a form which anyone entering from another state or country has to complete. Travelers either consent to testing or state that they have been tested negative and can prove it. You have to provide an address where you can quarantine if you contract the virus. You can complete this in advance, or at the airport. You will need a physical copy, or electronic proof of completion at the port of entry.”
The Portugal Tourist board has a Clean & Safe stamp for businesses trained in preventing coronavirus, does Alaska have anything similar?
Jara: “We have a ‘Reopen Alaska Responsibly’ plan which lists best practices, resources and guidance. It doesn’t award a stamp like Portugal have, but it provides very similar guidelines for sanitization, social distancing and so on.”
What kind of activities are open and available in Alaska?
Maria: “All businesses, recreational activities and sports can now open!”
Rachelle: “Restaurants and bars are open, retail stores are open. Fishing charters are now allowed. Day spas, nail salons, hairdressers and barbers can operate. Swimming pools have been able to open. Theaters, bowling alleys and museums can open.”
Jara: “This is a new normal, with businesses increasing sanitization, staff using face masks and temperature checks and areas rearranged for safe social distancing. For example, our boat tours are running but we are using boats with maximum outdoor viewing. We have limited capacity on our vessels to allow for social distancing. Each party gets their own table. We swapped buffet lunch for a pre-plated, deli-style lunch.”
Are cruises to Alaska allowed too now?
Edward: “No. There is a Federal “no sail” order in place for cruise lines until at least July 24.”
Frederique: “It doesn’t look like there will be any cruises this year. Carnival Corp, Princess Cruises, Holland America and others have cancelled all Alaska voyages for the remainder of 2020.”
Jara: “The majority of travelers who visit Alaska come by cruise. Without coronavirus, it’s estimated that 1.44 million cruise passengers would have come to Alaska each year, for the rest of 2020, that’s looking like it will drop to zero.”
What does no cruise passengers mean for wildlife viewing?
Erik: "I've read reports from marine biologists saying that whale stress hormones have decreased as a result of quieter waters because of the 'no sail' order. Whales are happier! There are predictions that this will make hunting and mating easier for them, and without huge cruise ships deterring them from the coastline, it could lead to more sightings."
Jara: "I read similar reports about seals in Glacier Bay. Remember no cruise ships doesn't mean no boats at all. Our vessels are small enough to be able to run, and we are reducing the number of passengers and following other CDC guidelines to allow for social distancing and cleanliness. So hopefully we can take guests to enjoy plenty of amazing wildlife sightings!"
Will I have to wear a mask while traveling in Alaska?
Maria: “You will when you are walking through some common areas indoors. Outdoors and when you are only nearby friends and family, you will not need to wear a mask.”
What does travel around Alaska look like?
Steve: “It will be an Alaska unseen for decades without the millions of cruise passengers we usually get.”
Frederique: “Alaska has never felt crowded but I am imagining an even quieter state, where businesses and travelers will commit to follow the appropriate social distancing guidelines.”
Erik: “On trails people step aside to pass...most folks are diligent and careful. Don’t forget the reassurance we will have knowing that everyone arriving and traveling is COVID-free, and that the testing and tracking system in place is effectively controlling the spread.”
Is Alaska set up for social distanced traveling?
Steve: “Yes. I think we are very well set up for social distancing, considering we have so much land space and the USA’s smallest population density.”
Erik: “Outside of your vehicular and air transportation we’re all about wide open spaces! A lot of Alaska that travelers visit is outdoors, like the Kenai National Park. So the issue of avoiding enclosed spaces isn’t much of a problem.”
Frederique: “Alaskans have gotten used to staying 6 feet apart and our businesses—stores, hotels, restaurants, boat charters, have adapted to allow people to social distance.”
How are Alaska hotels ensuring a safe stay?
Maria: “The state has provided guidelines for hotels as part of the ‘Reopen Alaska Responsibly’ plan.”
Jara: “We have CDC recommended disinfectants and practice hourly sanitization. We want to provide the highest standards of cleanliness achievable, for example we installed antimicrobial SafeHandles sleeves to commonly touched surfaces (like door handles, sink faucets, toilet flushers). It uses antimicrobial silver ion technology proven to reduce spread of viruses.
Maria: “We are following government guidelines on swimming pools, gyms etc. We have new partitions on our front desks and physical distancing signage to remind people to stay a minimum of 6 feet apart. Hand sanitizer is available in our common areas. Hand washing protocols increased. Thorough disinfection is practiced on switches and electronic controls, handles, bathroom surfaces, etc.”
What about getting to Alaska? What have you heard about flying?
Edward: “Regular flights have resumed. Air Alaska have a ‘Next-Level Care’ campaign, where they have implemented 100 different ways to keep travelers safe. All passengers have to wear face coverings, which the airline provide if needed. Middle seats are blocked on airplanes through July 31, 2000 and flights are limited to 65% capacity.”
What does this mean for Classic Journeys guests who are reserved on tours to Alaska or who want to travel this year?
Edward: “In a ‘normal’ year, our team goal is to get you away from the crowds to experience the best of authentic Alaska, environmentally and culturally. Normally, we would run the gauntlet of cruise passengers to escape to the places they cannot reach to find our special moments for our guests. In a very odd an surreal way this year, it is going to be so easy for our team to introduce our guests to the authentic Alaska because 24 million cruise passengers wil not be there!,
We have guests reserved on our Multisport and Family programs in late June, July, August and September, and we’ve seen an increase in travelers who have turned to us to craft a private departure, where they can travel exclusively with their friends or family on whichever dates suit them.”
Thank you, Edward and team. You’ve answered all of our questions, but our readers might have more. Can they contact you with any questions they have?
Edward: “Of course! Send any questions to email@example.com. We are closely following developments and will be happy to share what we know."