Uptick expected in tourism industry: Independent travelers represent boost for Kenai Peninsula businesses

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

The number of visitors to the central Kenai Peninsula is expected to be higher this summer, and the central Kenai Peninsula can look for a corresponding boost for businesses.

Shannon Hamrick, Executive Director for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council, said last summer the Peninsula saw an increase in independent travelers, and she expects to see another increase this summer.

Last year, 10 percent of those who asked for information about the state later said they planned to visit. This year, that number has increased to 16 percent.

Natasha Ala, of Kenai's Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said independent travelers make up a large chunk of the tourists each summer, and the growth has been consistent.

"We pretty much have seen steady growth," she said.

One measure of tourists is the visitor's guides the CVB prints each summer. Last year they printed 50,000 and ran out. This year they're printing 65,000.

"We send out thousands of guides each year," she said.

That's good news for local businesses that rely on visitors to purchase their goods or use their services.

Jimmie Jack, of the fishing company with the same name, is optimistic for the coming season.

"I believe we're going to have a better year hear at our company, Jimmie Jacks, but I don't know if it's going to be across the board that way," Jack said.

Jack wasn't surprised about the projections. The economy in the Lower 48 still needs to improve, but people are already showing signs that the economy is healing.

"I think people are spending a little more," he said.

Hamrick said that a number of factors are helping draw tourists to the state this year.

One is the addition of new air carriers.

"Edelweiss Air is launching new service from Switzerland," she said. Jet Blue will be traveling to the state, and Condor is increasing their flights, she added.

Another is that the state has been investing in a tourism marketing campaign by running four new commercials on national television that feature Alaska as a reachable destination.

Other television can help, too -- like the increase in reality programs centered around the state.

"We definitely think that any recognition to the state is great for us," she said.

Although it's mostly independent travelers who visit the Peninsula, Hamrick said cruise ships also draw people to the area when they land in Homer and Seward -- and by whetting people's appetites for Alaska. About 30 percent make a return visit to the state.

"The best impact that we get from cruise ships is that people get an introduction to the Kenai Peninsula," she said.

Despite the positive forecast, Jack said there have been some shifts in his bookings.

"We've got a real issue with the closure of the Kenai last June," he said.

Even people from the Lower 48 are skeptical of booking in June, when the fishery shut down last summer.

"That's probably the repercussions of having a closure rather than going to catch-and-release," he said.

Jack said that because he has other options for his clients -- fly-in fishing, halibut, the Kasilof River -- it was less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Hamrick said that throughout the tourism sector, bookings have looked a little different this year.

"One thing that the industry is keeping an eye on, and it's a continuing trend, is that bookings are being moved later and later," she said.

In the survey the council recently worked on with the Alaska Tourism Industry Association, the number of people waiting to make their reservations until late spring jumped.

Hamrick said that in 2011, 36 percent of definite visitors didn't have reservation. In 2010, it was just 20 percent.

Jack said that despite that trend, his bookings are on par with last year.

January through March is usually when the big push for bookings comes. As of mid-February, he was right on the mark.

"The numbers are exactly the same from a year ago," he said.

In part, that might be because Jack's business isn't wholly reliant on Outside visitors. He also reels in Alaskans.

"We get a lot of locals on day charters," he said.

And, of course, fishing isn't the only type of tourism on the Peninaula.

Ala said the CVB helps with a variety of events that draw people to the region, including the birding festival in May and marathon in September.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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