Summer tourism outlook tough to call

High price of gas expected to take toll on RV traffic; air travel unaffected so far

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2001

The only safe time to predict the strength of summer tourism is after the season, said the owner of North Country Charters in Homer.

"You never know what's going to happen," said North Country's Sean Martin. "This summer, my original thoughts are that fuel prices are high, so there will be people that don't want to spend the money to bring their motor homes to Alaska. The other thing is, financial markets are down. But our bookings are up."

Kenai Peninsula businesses give mixed reports on early bookings.

"It looks like it's running about normal," said Bob Strauss, general manager of Riverside House in Soldotna.

Some observers predict gasoline prices as high as $3 per gallon this summer, but Strauss said he expects little affect on his business, which, at season's peak, draws mainly out-of-state visitors.

"Most of our guests arrive by airplane," he said. "We may see a reduction in the number of RVs in our parking lot this summer."

Mike LeNorman, director of sales and marketing for Era Aviation in Anchorage, said Era's Kenai bookings for the next 90 days are up 2 percent from the same time last year, and by summer's end, the increase may be even greater. Most summer passengers come from Outside to fish, he said.

"The automobile fuel problem affects us in a positive way," he said. "We don't expect to see a lot of people coming to the Kenai Peninsula in their six-mile-per-gallon motor homes this year. We've heard the RV parks are down. We see a lot of people flying to the Kenai Peninsula and renting a car when they get there."

Even so, John Chapple, owner of the Homer Spit Campground, said his RV bookings are as good as ever. Bookings from the Lower 48 are about average, he said. Bookings for Memorial Day weekend, about 80 percent from Alaska residents, are up from last year.

Janet Harvard, owner of Country Boy Campground in Ninilchik, said her bookings are up, too.

"It's strange, because with high fuel prices, we expected reservations to be way down," she said.

Country Boy offers RV sites, cabins and rental trailers.

"For June and July, we're almost completely booked. We built two new cabins this year, and we've got those completely rented out in June and July. We've already got people from Texas and Arizona and all over. I've found that if people are going to travel, they're going to travel. Gas prices don't affect them."

Don Cho, manager of Kenai Riverbend Resort, said his July fishing charter and lodge bookings are good.

"We have the same people that come back every year," he said.

But Cho said rising Lower 48 utility prices have hurt his shoulder-season bookings.

"When you're spending $300 more for utilities each month, it takes a big bite out of your vacation budget," he said.

The troubled economy also hurts, he said.

"We get a lot of semi-retirees. I hear from a couple of people that they have to work a couple more years to get their retirement back to where it was."

However, Cho said, he has seen no change in his RV business.

Geoff Sundstrom, spokesperson for AAA in Orlando, Fla., said AAA expects Americans will make 230 million vacation trips this summer -- up less than 1 percent from last year, but still a record. Due to declining confidence in the economy, though, he said, travelers will be looking for ways to economize. Many will take shorter trips and seek cheaper accommodations.

High fuel prices affect long-distance travelers with gas-guzzling vehicles, he said.

"That is starting to manifest itself in sales of SUVs and RVs," he said. "Dealers are putting incentives they didn't have before on those vehicles."

However, high fuel prices alone have limited effects on Americans' vacation plans, he said. AAA has seen devastating effects only during fuel shortages such as those in the 1970s. Long-distance travelers plan months ahead and budget, he said. Many could afford fuel even if prices doubled. Many consider gasoline a necessity, and cut back first on restaurant meals or new CDs.

Tina Lindgren, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said she expects little growth in Alaska tourism this summer, though it is still early to make predictions.

The Travel Industry Association of America predicts a 3 percent increase in visitor business nationwide, she said, but it sees a soft spot in senior travelers, who are especially concerned about the economy and declines in the stock market.

Cruise lines have resorted to discounts, she said, and for them, "It's definitely a soft market right now." Nationwide, she said, vacationers are taking more more three-day weekends closer to home and fewer three-week destination trips.

"People have less time to travel. With two-income families, it's harder for them to get away," she said.

Perhaps for similar reasons, there has been little change the last few years in the number of visitors reaching Alaska by highway, she said. More people fly, then rent a car or RV. However, the Kenai Peninsula draws large numbers of in-state visitors, she said. They come to fish, and may be less affected than out-of-state travelers by high gasoline prices and the troubled economy.

"The Kenai Peninsula also has some new things for people to see and do over the last few years -- the Alaska SeaLife Center, the Challenger Center, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts -- that will bring people here," she said.

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