British Columbia

COVID-19 stalls iconic Alaska road trips, threatens northern B.C. businesses

As border closures and quarantines halt iconic Alaska-bound road trips, services and communities along B.C.'s Alaska Highway face a tough summer.

'It's an invitation to starve,' says Alaska Highway local, as trips of a lifetime through B.C. cancelled

A scenic stretch of the Alaska Highway over the Robertson River Bridge at mile 1,346. Border closures and quarantines are stopping visitors from travelling through B.C, to Alaska. (Shelley Potter, Alaska DOT)

The iconic Alaska road trip is in for a very rough ride this summer.

Businesses along the Alaska highway through B.C. and the Yukon rely on the seasonal parade of travellers in campers, RVs, cars and motorcycles — many embarking on the trip of a lifetime. 

But while Alaskans heading back home are still allowed to transit through B.C. and the Yukon, tourists are not. 

The U.S.-Canadian border is temporarily closed to all leisure travellers. People who are pursuing "recreation, sightseeing and hiking" are specifically excluded, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.  

At the B.C -Yukon boundary, enforcement officials at a temporary health checkpoint are also turning away tourists on the Alaska Highway.  For those who make it through as new arrivals, both Yukon and Alaska require a two-week quarantine.

Those roadblocks along the route now threaten people who make their living from the Alaska highway tourist trade, from RV parks to gas stations and gift shops.

Born along the Alaska Highway in northern B.C., Earl Brown, right, travelled every kilometre of the route for years for the Milepost travel guide. (Earl Brown/Contributed )

"It's going to be a tough, tough year ... an invitation to starve," Earl Brown told CBC News. Brown was born and raised along the Alaska Highway in northern B.C. 

For a quarter century, he regularly travelled every mile of the route, selling ads to hundreds of businesses along the Alaska Highway for the Milepost guide book.  

"They have a very short window of opportunity, and there is a lot of uncertainty," Brown said. 

Brown says even the easing of border restrictions may not help. "People have been waiting their whole life to go ahead and make this adventure. They want to know for sure or they're going to say, "let's wait this out."

Indeed, Alaska's official tourism slogan now is: "Alaska will wait, for you."

At Mile 62 of the Alaska Highway, north of Fort St John, B.C., the Coffee Creek Campground and RV Park is usually packed with Alaska-bound travellers.

For many tourists, travelling to Alaska is a once in a lifetime trip. But this year, there will be almost no traffic on the iconic route.

Park owner Donna Svisdahl says American tourists reserve the camp sites half a year in advance. But now, she says, they've all cancelled. 

"It's sad," Svisdahl told CBC News. "But we can't do anything about it but stay home and be safe. And maybe next summer, we'll be OK." 

A 2017 closure sign during icy weather on the Alaska Highway. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

At mile 300 of the Alaska highway, Fort Nelson Mayor Gary Foster feared outside visitors might spread COVID-19. But as tourism slows to a trickle, he now fears for the local economy.

"Without tourism on the highway, it's going to have a severe impact. On service stations and auto repair and restaurants and lodges, up and down the Alaska Highway," Foster told CBC News.  

"Today we have very little gas exploration here. We have no forest industry. So now we're relying on the tourism industry. And that door has been shut," he said. 

Campers, cars, and RVs stop for a road closure along the Alaska Highway in 2017. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A record 97,200 visitors travelled to Alaska by ferry and highway in 2018, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Many of them drove through B.C. and the Yukon,  

"While we can't predict when the Canadian and U.S. governments will agree that it is safe to reopen the borders and lift mandatory quarantine measures, we do believe that the Alaska Highway will be a popular road trip route for adventurers when that is possible again," said association president and CEO Sarah Leonard. 

The sun sets behind the historical Tok River Bridge on the Alaska Highway at mile 1,309. The scenic route attracts thousands of travellers every year. (Tracy Coon, Alaska DOT/Contributed )

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

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