Despite difficulties, peninsula tourism holds steady course

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

They don't call it the Great Land for nothing. Majestic mountain ranges, temperate rain forests with towering trees and glaciers galore are just a few of the geographical features that attract visitors annually to Alaska.

Not to mention the rich culture, fascinating history, abundant wildlife and some of the best fishing in the world that goes along with those features.

Visiting Alaska can be the experience of a lifetime for many Outsiders, but the enormity and diversity of the state means there's a lot to see and do for Alaskans, as well.

"It's common knowledge that many tourists, maybe as many as half of our tourists to the Kenai Peninsula, are Alaskans," said Aud Walaszek, executive director for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.

The agency markets the peninsula as a whole for the visitor industry, paying special attention to unincorporated areas and smaller communities.

"People don't know about the Kenai Peninsula unless we educate them," Walaszek said.

She travels around the state and nation scheduling individual appointments with tour operators to inform them about the peninsula and to establish good working relationships.

The KPTMC also recently sent out 3,500 travel planners and discover guides to tour operators around the United States.

"We try to get people to choose the peninsula, rather than just waiting for them to come," Walaszek said. "We focus on individuals, families and groups, and not just Alaskans, but international tourists, as well."

Tourism faced numerous challenges in 2003, including SARS, increased terrorist threats and strained relations between the United States and many countries around the world.

However, Walaszek said tourism this past year was stable and "international operators aren't hesitating to send people here."

There have been concerns that 2004 could be a sluggish year for tourism due to a boycott by animal rights activists angry over the McGrath aerial wolf control program.

"To date that hasn't been brought to my attention as a challenge to the KPTMC," Walaszek said.

She also pointed out an issue that sometimes goes unnoticed.

"When people think of tourism they just think of the tourism economy. They often don't take into account how many residents moved here after being tourists. A lot of people visit Alaska, fall in love with it and then move here," she said. "Tourism does a lot for the economy that benefits us indirectly."

Jeanne Camp, an economic analyst for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, also spoke of the challenge of compiling accurate tourism statistics.

"Tourism numbers are very difficult to come by," she said in regard to gross sales.

This is because not all sales during the tourist season can be attributed to tourists. Many increases come from seasonal construction workers and commercial fishers. As such, Camp said, "Gross sales numbers are conservative."

According to Camp, the total gross tourism sales for 2002 were $99,137,305 and taxable tourism sales were $70,840,818. She added those figures are an increase from the previous year.

Camp also stated that in 2002, 17,614 people were employed through the tourism industry, adding that the average monthly wage for a person employed through tourism was $2,798.

A total of 2,323 business licenses in the borough were in the tourism industry, which includes the areas of food service, guide services, sightseeing, lodging, RV parks and recreation camps.

"That equates to 26.84 percent of the total business licenses," Camp said.

Of those 2,323 licenses, 573 were issued in Soldotna, 476 in Homer, 350 in Seward and 241 in Kenai.

"The Soldotna numbers are so high due to all the Kenai River guides and Homer's numbers are due to the halibut fishing guides," Camp said.

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