The COVID-19 pandemic made for a tough year in the tourism industry. As summer approaches, small businesses reflect how the pandemic has changed their operations and what they expect this season.
Every year, Bristol Bay draws countless people from all over the world to visit and fish the pristine rivers and lakes. Last year, however, travel restrictions and quarantine requirements led to a drop in tourism.
Several of the region's sport fishing camps closed or operated at a reduced capacity during the 2020 season. Some did so to prevent bringing COVID-19 to the region, others closed because of changing travel rules.
Regardless of the reason, the lack of tourists affected many of the small businesses in the area — including bed-and-breakfasts.
“We really can’t afford to shut down our business two summers in a row — it just doesn’t make good business sense,” said Susan Isaacs, an owner of the Beaver Creek Bed and Breakfast in Dillingham.
Isaacs said she applied for and received CARES Act funding from both the City of Dillingham and the state.
“Even though you don’t have business customers, paying customers, you still have a lot of fixed expenses that don’t go away,” she said.
Due to the limited number of flights to the region, sport fishermen often stop in villages in the region on their way to camps and cabins on the Nushagak or other rivers.
The B&B lost out on tourism, but Isaacs said she has been able to host essential workers coming to Dillingham. She also implemented new policies to protect both herself and the travelers.
“Of course they wear masks if they’re with me and they wear masks around me," she said. "They can take their mask off when they’re not around me — I’m not going to tell them what to do. If they’re driving with me, if I have them in the van, then they will have a mask on.”
Usually, B&Bs will pick guests up from the airport, but the Silver Fin Lakefront Bed and Breakfast in Aleknagik asks guests to drive themselves with a rental car in order to socially distance. Owner Sherol Mershon said that when her guests arrive, she asks that they follow several safety precautions.
“We did social distancing, we wore masks, we always serve everything clean and we clean up the cabins nice and have everything looking ship-shape when they get there,” she said.
Mershon said Silver Fin could have applied for CARES Act funding, but she felt her business wasn’t affected as heavily as others.
“I think I wanted the money to go to the people that really need it,” she explained.
On the east side of the Bristol Bay, Blue Fly Bed & Breakfast owner Patricia Edel said in-state tourists helped her business the most.
“Especially in the fall, I really feel like Alaskans carried the business because they’re willing to travel from Anchorage and come out for trout fishing and that was really helpful,” she said.
Edel said that when her clientele came to the region, they were receptive to safety precautions.
“Most of my clients are pretty flexible and will be willing to adhere to any CDC guidelines or anything like that, so I don’t see it being much of a problem,” she said.
All three owners look forward to the 2021 season and hope that vaccines and more knowledge about the virus will lead to a more prosperous tourism season.
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