ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Kenai Fjords National Park has proven to be an economic boon to Seward, according to a report commissioned by the National Audubon Society.
The report, prepared by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said tourism created most of the town's new jobs and income in Seward in the last decade.
Despite strong local opposition in the 1970s to the park's creation because of fears it would stifle the economy, Kenai Fjords has become Seward's major tourist magnet and the town has reaped rewards, the report said.
Kenai Fjords is renowned for its glaciers, seabirds and marine mammals. It became a national park under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
Two years later, the park drew 16,000 visitors. By 1999 the number had grown to 290,000, according to National Park Service figures cited in the report.
Since passage of ANILCA, which moved 104 million acres of Alaska into park, refuge and wilderness status, Seward's annual average employment has increased at a rate of 3.7 percent, the report said. The visitor industry has driven most of the economic growth, especially since 1990.
Employment in trade, services and transportation, sectors of the economy that provide the most visitor-related jobs, grew at an annual rate of 5.9 percent. And retail sales from summer visitors have grown at a 9.9 percent annual rate, according to the study.
The national park is not the sole factor spawning Seward's tourism expansion. The last decade has seen road improvements between the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage, increased sportfishing, growth in cruise ship passengers, and the development of local attractions such as the Alaska SeaLife Center.
But the National Park Service found that 62 percent of park visitors said Kenai Fjords was their main reason for visiting Seward.
''It's one of our biggest assets. It's a very large draw,'' said Julie Taurianen, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce.
Cruise ships brought 267,000 people to Seward last summer, according to the report, but their economic impact was modest.
''The bulk of the recreational and tourist dollars still come from Alaska residents and independent travelers. The cruise ships themselves are self-contained small communities, and their purchases while in port are limited,'' the report said.
Growth has its downsides, the report noted. Businesses increasingly are open only seasonally and oriented toward tourists instead of locals. Seasonal jobs have low wages and rental housing in short supply during summer. The report noted traffic congestion and overuse of some areas and trails.
Money from the Alaska Conservation Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation helped pay for the report.
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