Tourism industry holding its breath

High hopes prevail

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

Nine months after terrorist attacks struck a blow to the travel industry, tourism is trying to crawl back from a near demise. The concern for safe travel may turn out to be a boon to Alaska, and in particular, the Kenai Peninsula travel market, however, despite a snail's-pace start in the booking season.

Alaska Travel Industry Association spokesperson Mark Morones said some work may help ease a rut that the Alaska tourism industry has slipped into of late.

"The tourism industry in Alaska has been a growth industry, and that growth is slowing down," he said. "We (are) trying very hard to encourage people within the state to travel and take advantage of all the things there are to see up here."

He said ATIA is attempting to shift the focus of its marketing strategy accordingly, with a recent "Find Your Alaska" promotion running on TV and a Web site in the past months.

"We were offering Alaska resident specials," Morones said. "We're trying to basically encourage our members to offer discounts to Alaska residents. We had about 34 members who participated in this go-around."

Homer expects to fare well from Alaskans visiting Alaska. Derotha Ferraro, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said this is a trend for the city, which is right on course for a successful season.

"So far, so good," she said. "Homer is a repeat destination. We're a pretty safe bet. Our No. 1 visitors are Alaskans.

"Alaskans tend not to make reservations," she continued. "If the weather is good, they come."

Jay Barrett, director of communications for the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the late start to the season gave many doubts. But he said he is looking forward to more vacationers arriving as the season goes on.

"We're very optimistic," he said. "Although spring might be a little late, the visitors seem to be on time."

An ATIA survey conducted in March found a 12 percent drop in travel inquiries and a 13 percent drop in bookings compared with the same time last year. These numbers, however, were improvements over February and December 2001 figures, as both months averaged 10 percent fewer inquiries and bookings than March.

Tourism businesses have felt this decline, as well as the gravity from more locally based concern. But many business owners say they still have a positive outlook. And some say their records show they could be on the cusp of a great season.

Don Johnson, co-owner of Johnson Brothers Guides and Outfitters in Soldotna, said his business does not have all that rosy an outlook. The fishing guide attributes his impending business loss -- and that of many area guides -- to a conundrum of issues, both at home and at large.

"Subsistence issues, (Alaska Department of) Fish and Game internal problems, Board of Fish internal problems, and 9-11," he said. "You put them all together and you've got yourself a massive train wreck.

"Every individual guide business is going to take a massive $5,000 to $10,000 minimal hit from last year."

Johnson said that proposed catch-and-release regulations for early-run Kenai River king salmon -- which are now likely to be delayed a year -- have caused clients to look elsewhere for recreational opportunities. Just the hint that people might not be able to keep a king scares anglers away, Johnson said.

"It's just not practical. It gets people totally turned off with the entire early run," Johnson said.

Soldotna Bed and Breakfast owner Steven Anderson said he's seen a slide in bookings and even some expensive cancellations. But he said identifying the specific reason for the downturn is not simple.

"It's been a weird year," he said. "The overall downturn, no doubt about it, has to do with Sept. 11. But some things you can't help."

Anderson said a large corporate booking that got nixed with the change of the company's CEO contributed to his woes. In spite of that and slow business, he said, he is still able to look on the bright side.

"We've had about $50,000 worth of cancellations," he said. "It's still early to tell, but I would say June is going to be a big disappointment. But the way I look at it, heck with it. If we're not that busy, we've got a lot more time to enjoy."

Princess Tours spokesperson Tom Dow said his company is expecting some improvement in reservations after a slow start in bookings last fall.

"Most of the people that we talk to feel much better about the way Alaska is going to go than we did back in the fall," Dow said. "The challenge is making up for last fall, where you usually start getting some early business on the books."

Tim Worthem is CEO of Premiere Alaska Tours of Anchorage, a company that operates charter buses from Anchorage to the peninsula. He echoed Dow's sentiment on playing catch-up on lost reservations.

"For Alaska, a lot of bookings get planned in the fall," he said. "And that didn't happen last year. In January, booking picked up, but it's hard to make up for what you missed."

But Soldotna Visitor Center Coordinator Shanon Hamrick said progress is in the making.

"Things were really down at the beginning of the year," she said. "But they're rebounding."

Last week, Alaska Airlines announced a 2.3 percent increase in passenger miles over the previous year, due to increased flights and additional routes, while many airlines, with wider circulation in the U.S. and abroad, suffered significant decreases.

Helen Marrs, Seward Chamber of Commerce executive director, and Kenai Fjords reservation supervisor Sarah Hanson both said the foreign market's loss is Alaska's gain.

"Reservations are up," Hanson said. "Our theory is that all of the people that were going to travel to Europe are going to stay and travel domestic."

Marrs agreed, saying cruise ship passengers coming into Seward are equal to last year's numbers.

"It seems to be many people are choosing Alaska as a travel destination rather than an overseas trip," Marrs said. "We have a few less ships coming, but we have bigger ships, so the head count is the same."

ATIA's Morones said whether tourists will spend money when they arrive is hard to tell. Particularly with so many customers taking advantage of discounted fares, retailers worry that more frugal travelers will be less likely to spend when they come on shore.

Those travelers wanting to get here by the road system seem to have more incentive to come now as well, KVCB's Barrett said.

"People who are booking RV reservations said their bookings are up over last year," he said. "That's indicative of the fact that gas prices are lower than last summer, and people are not as eager to fly with security concerns."

Joanne Martin, of Diamond M Ranch in Kenai, gave her prognosis of the summer as a whole in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks.

"I think it's going to hurt us a little," she said. "But we're still optimistic."



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