Visitor industry mixed on prospects for summer

Posted: Saturday, March 02, 2002

Travel and tourism industry heads in Alaska may be worried about how the downturn in the nation's economy and the events of Sept. 11 will affect the travel and tourism industry this year, but area business owners haven't let doomsayers take away their optimism for a booming summer tourism season.

"I have talked to some members (businesses), and they said they were actually getting early bookings already," said Myra Arbelovsky with the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. "If anything, this might be a very good time for tourism in Alaska."

The Alaska Travel Industry Association, a nonprofit organization that conducts marketing on behalf of the state of Alaska, does not agree. The organization has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of a diminished tourism season this year and has requested $12.5 million from the state to conduct a marketing campaign to get people interested in coming to Alaska. The request was pared down to $6 million in the state House, and as of Feb. 19, it had moved out of a Senate committee and is awaiting action by the full Legislature.

"It's bleak for us up here, there's no two ways about it," said Charlene Spadafore Vassar, cooperative marketing manager for ATIA, when she spoke at a Resource Development Council meeting in Kenai in December. "(The events of Sept. 11) had a tremendous impact on the industry throughout the world. One million tourism-related jobs could be lost."

The extra money ATIA is requesting would be added to the state's current $7.8 million budget and would put Alaska's marketing budget on a more even footing with other states. The average state tourism budget for all 50 states is $13.7 million; $5.9 million more than Alaska's budget, Vassar said. And since Sept. 11, other states have been channeling even more money into emergency tourism marketing funds.

Alaska's smaller tourism budget could mean less tourists and less revenue.

"We are competing for that same potential visitor that other states are," Vassar said. "There's only so many people in the world, and we're all vying for the same body to come to our state. Obviously, we need some help here, folks."

It is not usually the job of government to pay to advertise for businesses, but this is an unusual situation where the business climate has become unsafe and insecure, said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"There's definitely been an impact from Sept. 11," Gease said. "Our industry is directly tied to the vehicles that were involved in the terrorist attacks. The transportation industry is the lifeblood of getting people to Alaska. The reports we've gotten back from members is that their bookings are about anywhere from 10 to 30 percent lower. That's why ATIA is looking to get additional funds from the state."

Not all area business owners are quite as concerned, however. Steve McClure, vice president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association in Soldotna, spoke with more than 100 guides in the KRPGA in January. He said guides doing sports shows and the larger guide businesses are doing well so far this year. Some of the husband-and-wife guide businesses are not doing as well, McClure said.

But he speculated this is because they haven't been active enough recruiting clients.

"If you get out there and beat the path a little bit, you're going to do well (this summer)," McClure said. "The people out doing the shows are getting a lot of bookings. I think there's a lot of interest in Alaska this year. People want to come to Alaska because it's a safe destination. I think it's going to be just as busy as last year, if not busier."

One thing Alaska has going for it with tourism is its location, Gease said. Alaska is an exotic travel location for Americans that doesn't require travel overseas or out of the country. Alaska tourism groups will also focus more on in-state marketing this year to boost visitor numbers and revenue, Gease said.

Repeat clientele also can be a saving grace for area businesses.

"We tend to get a lot of hard-core fishermen," said Andy Mezirow, president of the Seward Charter Boat Association. "You can't keep them away. We started getting calls for bookings as soon as the war in Afghanistan was under control. It was like clockwork. I think people were just waiting for things to simmer down."

As long as world events stay simmered down, there's no reason the tourism season should be a bust, some business owners advised.

"I had a couple of reservations on hold (after Sept. 11)," said Pat Dwinnell of Longmere Lake Lodge. "People weren't too sure. Now they've firmed it up. I think they were just trying to see how safe air travel is going to be. Now that things have kind of settled down, they're more comfortable traveling. As long as airline prices are reasonable, I think it'll be a good season all around."

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