Where are the tourists?

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2003

The outlook for this year's RV tourism on the Kenai Peninsula depends on where you go and who you talk to. RV parks in the Kenai area are seeing a decline in bookings, while the Seward area seems to be this year's RV mecca.

Debbie Bass and her husband, Jim, own Bing Brown's RV Park and Motel in Sterling. According to Bass, bookings for the RV park are down about 25 percent from last year.

"A lot of people who stay here come every year," she said. "This year they are just not coming."

One factor that Bass attributes the decline to is the poor performance of the stock market.

"I just don't think people have a lot of money and what they do have, they are hanging on to," Bass said.

Add to that the recent war in Iraq, high gas prices and a fear of coming through Canada because of SARS, she said.

Many of the guests at Bing's tend to stay longer than the typical RV traveler, with some of them staying the entire season there.

Bass said RVs usually begin to arrive in the area around May 1. This year, they still had not shown up as of May 15.

"It's gonna be a weird year," she said.

Usually, every place in the Kenai area is booked for the last two weeks in July for the big king salmon run.

"This year we are not even booked for the end of July," Bass said.

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bing Brown's often had a waiting list. Guests would make their reservations for the next year before they left for the summer. However, the trend now is that travelers are waiting to book until shortly before they travel. Bass said reservations for the RV park did not begin to filter in until April.

Bing Brown's is not the only facility feeling the loss.

Matt Marotzke, co-owner of the Edgewater RV Park in Soldotna, also reported a decline in bookings. He said reservations were down nearly 20 percent from the previous year.

"I am still optimistic that it's going to improve," Marotzke said.

The family-owned business includes 12 other RV parks in Washington, Nevada and Ari-zona.

"We do a lot of marketing down there, so I think that helps us," he said.

Parks in the Seward area, however, are singing a different tune. Lynn Hettick, owner of Bear Creek RV Park, said reservations for her park were up 30 percent from this time last year. Business at Bear Creek has increased despite the fact that two new RV parks opened last year and Seward is adding a city-maintained full hook-up park on the waterfront this year.

"We were the only RV park until last year," said Hettick, whose park has been in business for RVs since 1985. Before that, it was a mobile home park.

Hettick said Seward represents a unique situation for the RV travelers. There are more limitations to where people can park in the area.

"We don't have any state park on this side," she said.

"Also, people will park at Fred Meyer (which has since changed), and we don't have that here. People can't just park anywhere."

Stoney Creek RV Park, one of the new facilities to open last year, was built to accommodate construction crews working on the Seward Highway project from Mile 8 to 18.

Last year, it was converted into a public RV park. This is the first year they have advertised the park and, according to the manager, Darlene Emery, the response has been tremendous.

"We are being slammed," she said. "We have caravans coming (from all over)."

Though business may be good this year for the privately owned RV parks, next year may be a different story. According to Hettick, the city's RV park should be on line by the middle of June.

"It's a government entity competing with private companies," Hettick said.

She added that the city plans to charge $17 per night for slips, which undercuts the rest of the businesses in the area. She also added that the city will provide 50-amp electric service.

"Nobody else can afford to do that," she said. "The city can afford to do it because they own the electric company.

"It's unfair competition," she said. "It's gonna hurt us eventually, but not this year."

Christina Sessions is a writer for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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