COVID-19 stalls iconic Alaska road trips, threatens northern B.C. businesses
'It's an invitation to starve,' says Alaska Highway local, as trips of a lifetime through B.C. cancelled
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.