If the Sterling Highway seems crowded in the summer, the explanation is simple. It is crowded.
According to Alaska's Division of Tourism, some 1,135,700 visitors came to Alaska between May and September of 1998.
Figures from 1997 show 68 percent of people visiting the state come to the Kenai Peninsula. Research done by the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council shows July is by far the biggest month for visitors
Faron Owen, executive director for the council, is helping spread out those numbers. Representing 307 members, the council distributes 100,000 copies of an annual travel planner. However, beginning this year, the council has a second planner scheduled for October distribution.
"The new vacation guide will be a weekend get-away guide," said Owen. "It is an in-state guide for Alaska residents. It targets basically shoulder seasons and encourages people to come (to the peninsula) for long weekends.
"We realize these people still need a comprehensive planner, but dramatically different from out-of-state (visitors)."
A shift in emphasis is helping distribute visitors.
"We're seeing winter events trying to expand," Owen said, "The Polar Bear Jump-off in Seward, Peninsula Winter Games, Homer's winter king salmon tournament.
"Still, winter is an untapped tourism market in a lot of ways."
A December 1999 publication from the Alaska Department of Labor shows the number of visitors to Alaska steadily increasing during the past decade.
"Along with the increase in visitors came growth in the number of hotels, restaurants, retail shops, tour companies and other businesses that provide services to tourists," said the report.
Data provided by Jeanne Camp, economic analyst for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, gave tourism a global spin.
"Even tourism is dependent on factors outside the realm of borough control," said the borough's 1998 Situations and Prospects. "As economic conditions improve across the global economy, more consumers respond to KPB tourism opportunities. If economic conditions decline, disposable income declines, resulting in fewer tourists able to fulfill the dream of a visit to the state of Alaska and in turn, to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. In addition, political or social unrest in other areas of the world may motivate world travelers to visit Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula rather than the areas of unrest."
Two indicators of growth in the tourism area are lodging and guided fishing trips.
According to the tourism council, 43 percent of people coming to the peninsula stay in hotels or motels and 24 percent stay in bed-and-breakfasts.
In 1999, Camp reported 302 business licenses from lodging facilities with taxable sales totaling $24,106,056.
Guides on the Kenai River totaled 368. There were 295 resident guides, and 288 of the guiding permits were for motorized vessels. Fishing guide permits totaled 329. Sales for all guiding services came to $29,327,189.
Parks for recreational vehicles and campgrounds are temporary home for a combined 34 percent of peninsula visitors. Camp said sales in that area came to $2,191,148.
The top four locations visited on the peninsula are Seward, Homer, Kenai and Soldotna.
Bobbie Miller, events coordinator for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, said the big draws in Seward are Resurrection Bay, Mount Marathon, fishing charters for halibut and salmon, Exit Glacier and the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Capitalizing on those attractions has helped bring in even more visitors.
"We have a halibut tournament from May 15 until August 1 and a silver salmon derby every August," said Miller.
"People call and ask if they can do only one thing in Seward, what should they do," Miller said. "I always answer, 'Exit Glacier.' Where else can you walk right up to a glacier?"
Seward also comes up with activities to keep visitors coming all year.
"We have a holiday train the first two weekends in December. People from Anchorage come to shop in Seward," said Miller. "In 1999, each train brought 500 people."
Seward also is exploring other opportunities to partner with the Alaska Railroad to center activities around Valentine's Day, a Nordic ski race scheduled for March and the opening of the harbor in May.
At the other end of the peninsula is the second most visited community, Homer.
"Homer is just a wonderful collection of all the great things Alaska has to offer," said Derotha Ferraro, executive director for the Homer Chamber of Commerce.
"Every year more and more businesses stay open year round. Right now it helps when Anchorage does a promotion," she said. "We get the trickle-down effect. When people come into the state for Fur Rondy, they wander around and visit other communities.
Homer's Land's End Resort is a good example of aggressive winter marketing. It offers weekend packages and, in 1998, hosted more than 300 conventions.
"Some of those are as small as groups of 15," said Owen, "But they still bolster the economy and show the impact conventions can have."
Kenai is the third most visited community on the peninsula.
According to Kathy Tarr, executive director of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, between May and September 1999, the visitor center had 54,056 visitors.
Tarr said she's expecting visitations in June and July 2000 to be exceed 1999's numbers because the bureau is hosting "Alaska 2000," a wildlife art show. Tarr also said that more people are traveling in 2000, and the number of inquiries her organization has received have dramatically increased.
In January 1999, the bureau's Web site had 884 visits. In January 2000, 4,014 people visited the site.
According to the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau's guest book, the top five locations where Kenai visitors come from are California, Florida, Texas, Alaska and Washington.
Justine Polzin, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber's membership is swinging toward the tourist industry.
"In 1996 the total visitor information leads that came in for direct requests (were) more than 1,200. Interesting thing is that number is no e-mail. It was mostly letters and phone (requests)," Polzin said.
Comparing 1996 with 1999 showed a marked difference.
"In 1999, we sent out almost 4,900 pieces of information. Over 2,600 of those were e-mail," Polzin reported. "E-mail has made a huge impact."
The bulk of requests for information come from California, Texas, Washington, Minnesota and Florida.
In order to do its part to promote the winter seasons, the Soldotna Visitor Information Center has extended its Monday through Friday hours to also include Saturday.
"Tourism has grown so much that some areas are starting to feel the strain from the large number of visitors," said the Department of Labor's 1999 report.
While many Sterling Highway motorists who find themselves caught behind a motor home might agree, peninsula residents are well aware of the importance this industry plays on local economics.
The Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau reported that in a 1999 tourism survey completed by the McDowell Group of Juneau, "76 percent of Kenai Peninsula respondents rated tourism as 'very important' to the local economy."
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