Working in Alaska’s tourism industry is a rite of passage for adventure seekers. For decades, Alaska has drawn a workforce from all backgrounds, including from inside the state, the Lower 48, and internationally—all looking for exciting experiences in the 49th state.
Glaciers, bears, mountains, fishing…and dishwashing? For many, this is an accessible avenue for exploring the north.
Alaska is situated in the high latitudes of the globe and can be an extreme environment. For thousands of years, Alaska Natives have stewarded the landscape, gathering abundant food resources during the energetic spring, summer, and fall seasons, then “putting it up”—preserving it—to sustain them through the year. Visitor patterns to the state have largely followed in this fashion. Summer has historically been peak season for visitation as travelers come to enjoy Alaska during the long days of sunshine between May and September, with 87 percent of the state’s visitors arriving during those five months. In recent years, the winter tourism market has drawn other adventure seeking travelers in search of cold weather activities and a chance to view the aurora borealis in the clear night sky of the Arctic.
The workforce has followed suit, with a robust summer seasonal employment roster of Alaskans, Lower 48 residents, and foreign workers employed on the J-1 student visa or H-2B worker visa programs. For decades, most employers were able to retain a core workforce of seasonal employees who returned to the same organization each year. Managers had to onboard just 20 to 30 percent of their teams as new hires, with some businesses keeping nearly 100 percent of their seasonal workforce for several years in a row. Their employees came back for good pay, opportunity for adventure, and camaraderie.
Looking for a job in Alaska’s tourism industry? Check out the listings at alaskatia.org/member-tools/job-opportunities and coolworks.com/alaska-jobs. Perhaps you’ll be a company’s next dock representative, or glacier sled dog handler, or craft bartender, or housekeeper, or sales manager, or hiking guide, or…
In 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, visitor numbers were a small fraction of regular years, and Alaskans took advantage of open roads and campgrounds to get out and explore on “staycations.” However, businesses suffered significant income shortfalls. Southeast Alaska was particularly hard hit. In 2019, the region saw about 1.3 million cruise ship passengers over the 110-day summer season. In 2020, that number effectively dropped to zero. Statewide, direct income from visitors to restaurants, gift shops, tour guides, and other supporting businesses was $2.79 billion in 2019. In 2020, it was just $619 million. The indirect income to boroughs and cities in the form of taxes and fees dropped 71 percent from $147 million to $42 million. Along with these financial impacts, the labor pool suffered as well.
When much of America was “locked down” during the summer of 2020, this caused a disruption in the seasonal workforce for Alaska. Tourism businesses were holding money close and canceling or delaying booked trips until a clearer pandemic picture emerged. Employees who had been coming to the state for years suddenly were looking for different employment they could do closer to home. As a result, many Alaska tourism businesses saw a break in much of the continuity of the historic workforce, along with the institutional knowledge they carried regarding business operations and local lore.
In 2021, as vaccines rolled out and Americans were once again booking travel, Alaska saw independent travelers arrive eager to get out, alongside a new generation of staff onboarding to run tourism businesses.
New hires at lodges, tour operators, and guiding outfits usually start in supporting roles as office assistants, housekeepers, lunch packers, bus washers, bussers, and laundry room staff. Unless a new worker arrives with specific work experience and skill, these roles are often the launching point for a career in Alaska’s visitor sector. And attitude is everything, especially in the close-knit work environment of a remote operation. Mike Sanders is the chief operating officer for Bristol Adventures, a subsidiary of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which owns several remote lodges and a flight service in southwest Alaska. “Bristol Adventures’ successes are made in hiring the best people we can to provide ‘best in industry’ customer service in the safest manner possible across the board,” says Sanders. “It’s no exaggeration to say that we are looking to employ the very best people in the industry to do these jobs.”
My start in Alaska came decades ago in Cooper Landing on the banks of the Kenai River. In the ‘90s, hiring was typically word-of-mouth, as the internet—and the now-common hiring platforms found there—was in its nascent stages. Personal connections were made and new employees each year were siblings, partners, or college roommates of previous co-workers. The days were long and usually ended with a late-night float down the river, a spur-of-the-moment climb up a nearby mountain, or staying up until the small hours at a campfire in the staff area. Bonds were forged over jokes, stories, shared experiences from the day, and a few cheap beers. Summer romances were common.
For many of us who joined the Alaska tourism industry in our younger years, the memories are rich ones. Tennelle Wise, assistant general manager at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, has 17 years of hospitality management experience in the state. Wise’s new hires are still attracted by Alaska’s reputation. “Most have heard about Alaska from friends and family,” she says, “and are excited about the adventure.”
“[New employees] are drawn to the great Alaskan experience, good pay, outdoors, wide-open spaces, fun, and friends,” says Christa Hagan, vice president of operations for Kawanti Adventures and Taquan Air in Ketchikan. She fills around 150 positions in these businesses each year.
Over a few seasons, new hires become key staff members who have learned management techniques, picked up local stories, learned how systems work, or taken an interest in botany or wildlife. A dock worker might become a deckhand and start to gain sea service hours towards a maritime license. A housekeeper who learns how to fish the river during their evenings and weekends might become a fishing guide in year two or three. Eventually, they graduate into managers running fishing programs or captaining sightseeing vessels in Alaska’s waters.
Those who have worked in the tourism industry have memorable moments. Alaska continues to provide an awe-inspiring backdrop on which individuals can write their stories.
Travelers and the interactions we have with them are often part of the narrative. One of my memories is from the morning of September 11, 2001, seared into time and place by the magnitude of the event. Staff were breathlessly sharing the news of the hijacked plane crashes while a couple of older women from Atlanta arrived for their scheduled full-day Kenai River-to-Skilak Lake rafting trip. I was their guide and we geared up quietly, perhaps sharing some guilt for continuing with a planned outing in the midst of such a tumultuous moment in our country. We navigated the river from morning through the afternoon and shared a deep conversation about life, as we were plunked together during this moment under extraordinary circumstances. The sky was silent above us as planes were grounded, and it seemed the river was empty, too.
We shared hugs at the end of the day, and a month later they sent a thank-you card with photos from the river enclosed. Sometimes, as Wise states, visitors “have come on vacation and fallen in love with the beauty!” Alaska has the power to make mid-career professionals and retirees drop everything to come work for a few seasons.
Tourism remains a vehicle for workers to participate in the industry showcasing the best of Alaska to the world. Whether someone stays for a season or two on their way to another career, or this is their chosen path, it can be incredibly rewarding. Alaskans can find meaningful work in sharing their culture, landscape, and experiences with travelers seeking to have a lifetime adventure this place affords. It’s also an opportunity to re-energize a new generation of adventure seekers who are dreaming of coming to Alaska. The activities are largely the same as when I first came to work in the state. Job seekers who want to work here are of a like mind, with a desire to step out and work in an exciting job that is also a pathway to adventure, connections to lifelong friends, and a way of life.