Tourism outlook bright

Peninsula a draw for independent travelers
Kay and Howard Imsande of Brainerd, Minn., enjoy a campfire next to their RV in Centennial Campground in Soldotna in 2007. Tourism officials are expecting independent travelers — people who drive to Alaska or fly and rent a vehicle to travel the state — to provide a boost to visitor numbers this season.

Tourism levels on the Kenai Peninsula will continue to climb back toward historically high levels this summer, Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council Executive Director Shanon Hamrick predicts.


Hamrick said recent numbers released by the state of Alaska indicate a small forecasted bump for the 2012 visitor season across the state -- as high as 6 percent. However, the Kenai Peninsula is poised to perform better than that statistic, Hamrick said, if trends in the number of independent visitors coming to the area continue to rise.

In fact, Hamrick estimated independent travel in the state, in which the Peninsula performs well, would top 2008 historic levels this summer, meaning local tourism-related businesses can breathe a little easier.

"I think we are going to see that trend continue," Hamrick said. "The Kenai Peninsula still is a very popular destination for the fly and drive traffic.

"While highway traffic is down in Alaska and has continued to decrease every year ... it is having a much bigger impact on places like Fairbanks, whereas the Kenai Peninsula is benefiting from the people who are flying into Alaska and renting a car or a motor home."

Independent travelers -- as opposed to those who arrive in the area on a cruise ship or other packaged deal -- are drawn to the area, Hamrick said, because of its proximity to Anchorage.

"We know our numbers are up on the Kenai Peninsula, but we don't have a way to count every single visitor that comes here, except through cruise (ship numbers), sales tax dollars and things like that," she said.

According to the recently released Alaska Visitor Volume and Profile survey completed in the summer of 2011, the state's largest city is its third most visited destination at 49 percent. Anchorage is tied for third with Skagway and trails Juneau, 67 percent, and Ketchikan, 58 percent, for the first and second most visited Alaska destinations, respectively.

"We will always have the benefit of people who have come to Alaska on a cruise ship and then decide they want to come back and experience it in a different way," Hamrick said. "That's another thing our marketing programs really focus on is get off the ship and experience Alaska."

According to that same state survey, an estimated 1.56 million out-of-state visitors came to Alaska between May and September 2011. Of those visitors, 883,000 were cruise ship passengers, 604,500 were air visitors and 69,300 were highway or ferry visitors.

That number is an increase of 2 percent over 2010's summer, but still 9 percent below the state's 2007 historic peak of 1.71 million visitors.

Southeast is the state's most visited region, attracting 68 percent of all visitors. Southcentral stands at 56 percent of visitors followed by the Interior with 33 percent.

However, most of Southeast's visitors travel on a cruise ship and overnight visitation there falls to 10 percent.

The Kenai Peninsula, specifically the Kenai and Soldotna area, leads all of the Southcentral region in average number of nights stayed in 2011. The area's 5.6-night average is slightly higher than Palmer and Wasilla's 5.4, Prince William Sound's 4.9 and Anchorage's 3.4 nights.

Air visitors were most likely to visit the Southcentral area at 80 percent, according to the survey. Average spending among air travelers increased from $1,376 per trip in 2006 to $1,455 in 2011.

The No. 1 tourist activity in Alaska was shopping at 69 percent followed by wildlife viewing at 52 percent and cultural activities at 49 percent. Fishing was listed at 20 percent among 2011 summer visitors.

Hamrick said research from the past 20 years continues to indicate people want to visit the state for three main reasons -- mountains, glaciers and wildlife.

"And we have them better than anyone else in Alaska," she said with a laugh. "But unfortunately everyone in Alaska says the same thing."

Cultural attractions, fishing and ecotourism are niche markets, Hamrick said, that all feed into, but might not be the main reason someone visits the state.

"We are continuing with our brand message and that has gone along very well with the trends that we have seen in this movement toward the more independent travel," she said.

Hamrick said she was pleased to see increases in tourism and independent travel to the Kenai Peninsula and to hear good predictions for this summer for the benefit of those businesses that might have struggled through the last several years.

"We've been saying ever since the bottom fell out that it was going to take until 2013 to reach the prior levels and we've pretty much been following along that track," she said.

Brian Smith can be reached at