After two-year COVID hiatus, tours on Pribilof island set to resume
Two years after becoming one of the most sealed-off locations in the United States, St. Paul Island is reopening to visitors.
St. Paul Island Tour, a business within the Unangan-owned TDX Corp., is resuming its operations after a pause forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
An email blast sent out last week revealed a lot of pent-up demand from would-be visitors for the restart of all-inclusive tours, said Sarah Nelson, sales and marketing manager for TDX’s hospitality businesses.
“I can’t seem to get off my phone today,” Nelson said on Monday. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook.”
Though distant from any of North America’s big human population centers, St. Paul and the four other Pribilof Islands are at the center of the Bering Sea ecosystem and are teeming with marine animals.
“The rich and diverse abundance of wildlife drawn to the Pribilof Islands are attracted by productive waters that result from a unique combination of currents and upwellings, the position of the islands archipelago near the historic maximum sea ice extent in the Bering Sea, and the remote location of these volcanic islands on the continental shelf that leads to the Aleutian Basin,” according to the Marine Ecological Atlas of the Pribilof Islands, released in 2020 by Audubon Alaska, the tribal government in St. Paul and the city government on neighboring St. George Island.
St. Paul is the Pribilof population center, with about 480 residents and associated services, including the TDX-owned hotel that lodges the hundreds of tour visitors who come in normal years.
The island is considered a premier destination for devoted birders. More than 300 species have been identified there, some of Asian origin and seldom spotted in North America. Among the rarest finds have been the Kamchatka leaf Warbler, solitary snipe, Chinese pond-heron and Asian brown flycatcher. Much more common are tufted puffins and thick-billed murres.
St. Paul is also the breeding site for more than half of the world’s northern fur seal population, and it holds a large concentration of endangered Steller sea lions. “The sea lions and seals are a huge draw, as well as the birds,” Nelson said. Additionally, the island has reindeer, foxes, wildflowers and a Russian Orthodox church that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tours were not feasible in 2020 or 2021. Because of its remote location and sparse medical services, St. Paul maintained some of the nation’s strictest COVID rules from the start of the pandemic, with tight limits on travel. In all, St. Paul wound up with 57 confirmed COVID cases, according to the city government, a much lower rate than that for the state as a whole.
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