Walker puts out call to join trade mission to China

  • Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and several members of his administration spoke at a March 5 press conference in Anchorage about his call for business leaders to join him on a trade mission to China set for the end of May. (Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC)

Who wants to take a trip with the governor?

At a March 5 press conference in Anchorage, Gov. Bill Walker said his office is looking for business leaders interested in participating in a trade mission to China this spring.

The weeklong business trip, scheduled for May 19-26, is the governor’s attempt to continue building off of a stop in Anchorage last April by China President Xi Jinping and Chinese cabinet officials.

“The discussions that took place at that dinner at the Captain Cook (hotel) were very fruitful in many ways since then,” Walker said of Xi’s visit to Alaska.

The Chinese government leaders were on their way home and made an extended refueling stop after meeting with President Donald Trump.

Walker said plans are for the Alaska trade delegation to be primarily made up of people from the state’s private sector joined by state Commerce Commissioner Mike Navarre, International Trade Director Shelley James and the governor. It’s not yet known if any other state officials will participate.

Those interested in participating in the administration’s trade mission to China should contact the state Office of International Trade. Attendees will be required to pay a $3,000 participation fee for meeting arrangements, interpretation, logistics, in-country transportation and other services, according to the governor’s office. Airfare and lodging are not included in that cost.

China is already Alaska’s largest trade customer, buying up nearly 30 percent of the state’s exports in recent years. Last year China imported $1.32 billion worth of Alaska products, a 7 percent increase from 2016, according to the state Office of International Trade.

Seafood, Alaska’s top export, has accounted for about half of the exports from Alaska to China in recent years, followed by minerals and timber.

Despite being tops locally, Walker cited statistics that Alaska is among the bottom three states nationwide in terms of business activity with China.

“We have a long ways to go but we have a tremendous opportunity,” he said.

The biggest fruit borne so far from Xi’s visit is the framework agreement Walker and Alaska Gasline Development Corp. President Keith Meyer signed in Beijing last November with three state-owned Chinese mega-corporations to possibly buy from and invest in the $43 billion Alaska LNG Project.

While the deal with oil and gas giant Sinopec, the Bank of China and China Investment Corp., which manages the country’s sovereign wealth fund, is nonbinding, Meyer has said AGDC hopes to have firm agreements in place by early summer that would be the foundation for a final investment decision on the project early in 2019.

Meyer said Trump’s talk of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum — met with bipartisan opposition — and other tough talk on trade with China is due to the massive trade imbalance with the U.S.

That creates an opportunity for Alaska, Meyer said.

“Really, the pushback (on China) is a message to buy more stuff from the United States and that’s where I think Alaska has the stuff that China wants, so I see this message of ‘buy more stuff’ really being a call to ‘hey, buy more stuff from Alaska,’ so we can do our part there,” Meyer commented. “I think the message is really harmonious with our mission.”

A partnership to bring the long-sought Alaska LNG Project to fruition would be an iconic achievement but the project still has many hurdles to clear, the most recent to arise being the state’s permit application declared to be incomplete by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

More immediately, Walker said the impact of one sentence uttered by Xi on-camera while he was here is already being felt by Alaska businesses.

The Chinese president referred to Alaska as “a Shangri La of China” and subsequently predicted what the result would be, according to Walker.

“The cameras were off — as he walked away he smiled a bit and said, ‘You will see an uptick in tourism as a result of my saying that,’” Walker recalled. “And he certainly was correct.”

Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe, invited by the governor’s office to participate in the press briefing, said tour operators, travel agents and others in the industry have anecdotally confirmed Xi’s prediction. She noted hard data on tourism growth for the country won’t be available for some time as international tourist travel is usually planned many months or years in advance.

“We are seeing a tremendous increase in inquiries from China visitors and also in products available both in Anchorage and also in Fairbanks to serve Chinese visitors, so we do see a lot of potential in this market as do other destinations,” Saupe said. “It’s a very competitive environment that we’re working in for the Chinese visitor because they are going to really have a lot of increased visitation throughout the U.S.”

Tied to the interest in tourism, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Manager Jim Szczesniak said his team is trying to make the airport again a major hub for international passenger flights.

The Anchorage airport is consistently among the top five airports worldwide for cargo plane activity mostly due to its prime location as a midpoint refueling stop between East Asia and the Lower 48.

Szczesniak said airport officials are promoting a similar model for passenger flights as a means for airlines dealing with worldwide shortages of pilots and commercial aircraft as well as high demand for gate space at the largest domestic hubs.

“We’re looking to offer airlines the opportunity to come directly into Anchorage, be able to transfer passengers in Anchorage — some of them like in Icelandair’s model will be able to get off here and be able to tour; do five, six, 10 days in Alaska — and then get back on a plane and continue on to their further destinations,” Szczesniak described.

Anchorage was a hub for international passenger traffic for many years until the early 1990s when the fall of the Soviet Union reopened airspace over the former communist country and popularization of the Boeing 747 made nonstop trans-Pacific flights feasible between more locations.

Szczesniak said today a daily eight- to nine-hour flight between Anchorage and most East Asia hubs requires just two pilots and one plane, while a similar schedule going direct to the Lower 48 would require two planes and six pilots per day due to flight-time constraints.

“Now that there’s a constraint back on the system we’re offering an opportunity for Anchorage to mitigate that constraint,” he added.

Szczesniak noted the airport waives some landing fees for airlines offering new or expanded direct passenger service to or from Anchorage depending on the frequency of flights and length of service.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

03/06/2018 - 5:43pm