Passengers disembark the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Serenade of the Seas in Juneau, Alaska, on Friday, July 23, 2021. The ship was the first to arrive that season. During a typical year, it's common for several ships to be in port in Juneau at the same time. But no large ships came to Alaska in 2020 amid the pandemic, and Congress stepped in to help salvage a cruise season for Alaska back in 2021. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Nicole Goodman and her husband had everything ready to go to start their electric bike tour company in rural southeast Alaska. 

The couple purchased the electric bikes in 2019 so they could open the following May, when cruise season would be starting.  

“As the cruise season approached and Covid-19 escalated, we knew that it was going to be a bumpy start,” she said in an email interview with The Daily Yonder. They went ahead and opened in May 2020.

“Skagway, Alaska, was expecting 1.2 million cruise ship passengers in 2020; instead, we had none,” Goodman said. “ If we had 100 visitors that summer, it was probably a lot.  People were not renting electric bikes or booking city tours with us. Locals were conserving money and visitors were non-existent.”

Across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, outdoor recreation employment decreased in 2020, ranging from a drop of 9.3% in Indiana to a drop of 27.2% in Hawaii, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. 

In Skagway, tourism dropped significantly during the pandemic. “We are on the road system in Alaska, but the road to reach us goes through Canada,” she said. “With the Canadian/US border closed and no cruise ships visiting Skagway, we essentially became an island cut off from the world. Our town was completely empty – like a ghost town.”

Goodman said that with the restart of cruises in July of 2021, they saw a small increase in visitors.

“I believe our visitor numbers were around 70,000,” she said. “While it was nowhere near 1.2 million passengers, the community was grateful to have visitors back in town. Our company also saw an increase in electric bike rentals to locals in 2021. The locals enjoyed exploring town in a fun, new way!”

She added that they are hoping this cruise year – which starts at the end of April – will be closer to “normal” in terms of numbers. 

Other travel companies, however, noticed an uptick in visitors wanting to explore their own home countries during the pandemic. 

Leigh Barnes, chief customer officer for operator Intrepid Travel, said that during the height of the pandemic they saw people wanting to stay close to home and get to know their own country and the cultures within it better. 

“That’s fundamentally been a shift, I think, over Covid,” he told the Daily Yonder. “Everyone was wanting to travel and experience other peoples’ cultures – there has been that shift. What that means for rural travel is that people are going back to different parts of their own country. I think we’re seeing an increase of people traveling to connect to understand themselves, understand their own culture.”

Although overall numbers were down, Barnes said Intrepid Travel has seen increased interest in outdoor activities. 

“People want to get out and be active,” he said. “There’s been an increase in walking, trekking, canoeing. We’ve seen a big increase in cycling trips and people hiking.”

In fact, Intrepid Travel, which is a B Corporation focusing on making positive change, has recently launched new U.S.-based travel options. Some are in cities and some are in more rural locations, including experiencing Indigenous cultural aspects within Montana and South Dakota. A B Corporation is a corporation focusing on maintaining high social and environmental performance through a special certification process.

Barnes said food also plays a role in rural tourism, as more people are interested in learning about the history of food systems and learning about where their food comes from. 

“On our Portland to San Francisco trip, one of our most popular experiences that we’re seeing is where you get to understand the role of salmon in tribal history in the USA,” he said. “You obviously get the food experience, but then you’re understanding the cultural significance of that particular food and what it’s meant to people over the generations.”

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