HAINES (AP) -- The number of people driving into Haines is declining and merchants say it's making a difference at the cash register.
U.S. citizens driving into Haines in May dropped this year to 2,786, a 15 percent drop from May 1999 and the lowest volume for the month since 1991.
Retailers, campground owners and others who depend on car traffic told the Chilkat Valley News that business is down 15 to 25 percent.
When averaged with April traffic, overall volumes are down only 4 percent compared to last year. But April figures may have been artificially buoyed by Haines residents snowmachining in Chilkat Pass.
According to statistics from U.S. and Canada border stations, traffic in and out of Haines from April through September climbed gradually after 1987, peaked in 1993 and, except for a jump in 1998, has declined every year since.
Merchants cite high gasoline prices and an unfavorable Canadian exchange rate for the decline but changes in the travel industry and vacation habits may also be factors.
Tina Lindgren, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said people are taking shorter vacations. Alaska visitors are likely to fly up and rent a car or recreational vehicle here, rather than drive the Alaska Highway or take a ferry from the Lower 48.
''People have less time to spend driving, and driving up here takes time,'' Lindgren said.
Lindgren's numbers show the number of motorists visiting Alaska as flat, not down, since peaking in 1994.
Skagway has seen sizable increases in highway traffic since 1993 and a huge jump in 1998, the year of the Skagway centennial. Haines-Skagway Water taxi owner Alison Jacobson said competition from Skagway for independents, as well as daily ferry service from Juneau, may be hurting independent traffic to Haines.
In previous years, when travelers had to wait for the ferry, they spent money shopping or using local accommodations. Without the wait, motorists aren't spending as much time or money here.
''I'm not sure the day ferry has been good in every respect,'' Jacobson said.
Without a change in the exchange rate, it may be difficult winning back volumes of Canadians.
''We used to get a ton of Canadians and they spent a lot of money,'' said Arne Olsson, who has a hotel, tour and camper park business. ''They partied like rock stars.''
Lindgren said legislative cuts that eliminated much of the state's advertising in the Lower 48 in the mid-1990s have hurt independent traffic.
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