David Yesner of Anchorage fills his recreational vehicle with gas last summer.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
When touring Alaska, it’s easy for a visitor’s eye to get caught on something seemingly more glittery like Denali, or perhaps a cruise ship offering a train ride on the side.
But visitor numbers are rising on the Kenai Peninsula for two very strategic reasons. Once here, the average visitor is seeing a sampling of just about all that Alaska has to offer. And, the average visitor isn’t always attracted because they are from out of state.
More and more Alaskans are finding their way to a region that is substantially boosted by tourism every year, and 2006 is not expected to be an exception.
“We have folks travel the world to see what we take for granted,” said Mya Renkin, executive director for the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We don’t see what others come to see,” she said. “There’s lots to see and do right here on the peninsula. That’s where the travel industry association did a lot of marketing outside the state, and they’re trying to look inside the state to get people to see that there is a lot to see and do.
“The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is really ‘Alaska miniature.’ We have glaciers, waters and flats. Anything you want to find in Alaska, you can pretty much find here on the peninsula. The wildlife refuge is the most visited refuge in Alaska.”
Gas prices started climbing at the start of last year's tourism season and remain higher today.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
And the people are coming.
Using the Internet and sports shows, local agencies are fairing well in attracting visitors.
Michelle Glaves of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce said chamber representatives find many people who don’t know what the area has to offer when they market the peninsula at sports shows in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
“It’s amazing to hear, ‘Where’s the Kenai Peninsula?’ ‘Where’s Soldotna?’” Glaves said. “They are amazed at all you can do: the fishing and everything. In Anchorage, there are lots of people who have heard of the Kenai Peninsula, but don’t know of every town and what to expect. For those folks, it’s a great weekend getaway.”
For marketers like Glaves and Renkin, it’s a matter of getting the word out.
“Just looking at our population base, they’re not thinking there’s much to do down here,” Glaves said. “It’s not worth the time to come. But once they get out of the city, they realize there is a lot to offer. There are misconceptions as to what Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula can offer to in-state and out-of-state residents.”
Seward and Whittier are places steadily capitalizing on the increase of tourism in Southcentral Alaska.
“There’s a lot of marketing out there for the state of Alaska,” said Scott Torrison, chief operating officer for Ciri Alaska Tourism Corp. His corporation oversees Kenai Fjords Tours, Seward Windsong Lodge, Alaska Heritage tours and a couple of entities in Whittier.
“It’s one of those places, as you travel around, everybody has Alaska on their list of places they want to go,” Torrison said. “For whatever reasons, coming out of 2001 with 9/11, all the travel numbers across the board are beginning to rise and Alaska is getting their fair share. The cruise industry has helped the state of Alaska for certain.”
When 2005 dawned, worries were multiple but mainly linked to rising gas prices.
“We all thought it would be a problem last year and we were proven wrong,” Renkin said. “It depends on what the fuel prices are in comparison to next year. The way I look at it, it’s probably not going to go lower and if you’re going to come here, you might as well come now. I don’t think prices are going to get any lower.”
“Visitors center numbers were down, but overall in town, it was the same as 2004 or up,” Glaves said. “Visitors seem to be spending about the same amount of money, that hasn’t gone down.
“Overall, statewide, road traffic is down and people are planning their trips not as far out. They decide quicker: ‘Let’s go week after next!’ They know they leave Seattle and can be fishing in eight hours.
“It’s not as much of an overseas trip as people think it used to be.”
And likely, visitors finding their way to places like the Kenai Fjords Tours where another catamaran is being added due to the volume are going to bleed over and create growth for the market in Soldotna-Kenai, as well as Homer.
“I think all the numbers were up across the board, entrance numbers despite higher fuel cost,” Torrison said. “Cruise traffic was up again, directed at the Denali market. Denali is the number one destination, but Seward and Kenai Fjords Tours are number two when talking Southcentral. And Seward is seeing strong growth.”
The ’06 season is promising. The marketers will hit the shows in the Lower 48, and agencies on the peninsula will again pool their resources. The Internet sites are ready for the questions and filled with facts and useful information.
“We’ve heard that domestic travel is down and international travel is up,” Renkin said. “As we see more international travel into Fairbanks and Anchorage, more people are coming down to the peninsula. There is a mystique to traveling to Alaska and it’s also a safe place.”
And it’s one that’s getting closer and closer all the time for those in the state, and those Outside.
Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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