Over 4,000 of the roughly 7,000 jobs lost to the pandemic in Southeast in 2020 were in Transportation and Leisure & Hospitality. If cruising adopts the “bubble” as a mitigation next summer, SE Conference director Robert Venables says “we’ve got to make Southeast Alaska a bubble with very good protocols.” (KCAW file photo).

The Southeast Conference is hoping to see tourism activity in the region next summer return to at least 50-percent of its 2019 levels.

Robert Venables is the director of the conference. He discussed his hopes for an economic rebound in 2021 during the fall speaker series (10-7-20) of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce.

Note: The Sitka Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Speakers Series will happen on seven more Wednesdays from now through the end of the year.  

Robert Venables is professionally optimistic — but not about the coronavirus pandemic. The Southeast Conference is a mix of businesses, individuals, and governments who come together to think strategically about the region. Its objective next year is to salvage the industry hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic: Cruise tourism. And that means being realistic.

This is going to be around for a while. Many of the communities are looking at 50-percent of tourism activity for next year as a best-case scenario. We simply don’t know. But we embrace a public dialog on how we can work through those issues. Some of the things they’re learning now: They’re rolling out limited cruises in Europe and the Caribbean, that will help point the way toward what Alaska can look forward to going forward for 2021.

The toll from the almost-total cancellation of the 2020 cruise season is still being calculated in businesses and governments across the region. In its annual report “Southeast by the Numbers,” the conference attributes a loss of nearly 7,000 jobs in the region to the pandemic — the lion’s share of them in transportation and leisure & hospitality (down 4,025 jobs combined). Venables said that the cruise industry is working to restore sailings next year by treating each vessel as a safe “bubble.” What that means for cruise destinations isn’t clear yet.

I know communities have seen some preliminary pieces of what that mitigation plan is for operating in this COVID-19 environment. And so one of the objectives we want to do is work with our communities, businesses, and the industry to see how we can make that bubble not just around their cruise ship and small groups of people that may or may not be allowed into businesses — but make Southeast Alaska a bubble that has very good protocols. We’re working on ways to help educate and train in the use of PPE (personal protective equipment) and the use of other protocols to keep Southeast Alaska safe. And I think that this year’s fisheries operations was kind of a good trial run for that, because we saw a lot of folks come in from the outside. We see the same thing in the mining industry, where they’re bringing hundreds of people in, and having the protocols to know how to safely move those folks around through the region. So hopefully by next year we’ll be able to reinvigorate our tourism economy.

Tourism isn’t exclusively cruise ships in Southeast. Venables sat on the governor’s Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group over the spring and summer. He said the Southeast Conference has always been “the loudest voice on the block” for the ferry system. The work group’s findings haven’t been officially released by the governor’s office. Nevertheless, Venables said some details were already circulating.

“We think there needs to be significant restructuring of how the Marine Highway System is run, whether it’s a public corporation or an empowered board,” Venables said. “There needs to be an executive level of management that is dedicated and passionate about the success of the Marine Highway System, and really focused on it.”

Venables also used his time during the Sitka Chamber Fall Speakers Series to promote an area of growth: Mariculture. He told the group that there was “only so much the Southeast Conference could do for existing sectors “and we’re going to support every one of them,” but as far as new economic opportunities in the region are concerned, “mariculture is going to be one of our priorities,” he said.