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On the road again?: RV lots report slow start to season

Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A dozen white motor homes clogged the Kenai Holiday gas station parking lot Monday morning, giving locals a rare glimpse at the kind of caravan that has been conspicuously missing from the summertime scene so far this year.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
James Milner of Franklinton, La., levels his camper after pulling into Kenai on Tuesday afternoon with his wife, Cathy. "We've been wanting to come (to Alaska) for a while," Milner said. "When the gas prices fell in the fall, we said this might be the year."

"Our visitation is down about 20 percent for June," said Natasha Ala, executive director of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Monday.

Ala said the center doesn't keep track of recreational vehicle traffic specifically, but that she doesn't doubt that vehicle traffic is way down this season.

"We're definitely seeing less people," she said.

A couple blocks away from the center, Beluga Lookout RV Park owner Jerry Dunn said business isn't booming.

"It's been off to a slow start," he said.

The caravan pulling out of Holiday earlier in the morning had stayed at his park the night before, giving business a much-needed boost. The caravan participants hailed from Germany, and Dunn said many of his guests are foreign nationals.

"We get them from all over the world," he said.

Dunn said his business is also heavily reliant on retirees, many of whom have seen their stock portfolios and retirement accounts depleted by the economic downturn.

"This year it seems like business if off because a lot of people lost money in their retirement accounts," he said.

The downward trend in vehicle traffic is nothing new. According to the state's Office of Economic Development, highway visitors to Alaska have declined in each of the past three years, including a 6.8 percent drop from 2007 to 2008.

From the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Tok, manager Lisa Conrad said she can't yet say whether 2009 will be another down year for border crossings. She said things seem slow, but because of a bureaucratic snafu the state has yet to see any numbers for this summer.

"We have not been able to get the border statistics," she said.

Conrad said the Department of Homeland Security is in charge of the data, and the state has been unable to get the feds to pass the numbers on.

"All we can do is sit and wait," she said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's office of public affairs in Washington, D.C. said she was unaware of any delay in getting border crossing numbers out, but was unable to provide any figures by the close of business Monday.

Even without hard numbers, Conrad said things in Tok -- the first town of any size for visitors entering Alaska via the Alaska Highway -- seem to be slow.

"Just talking to the local businesses, it seems like it's been down," she said.

With out-of-state visitors electing not to travel as much, local tourism marketers have had to get creative in trying to attract folks to the Kenai Peninsula. Natasha Ala said one way Kenai has been trying to get more visitors is by trying to entice Alaska residents to take what she called "stay-cations."

"In tough times, the strategy is to beef up the marketing efforts that we do," she said.

That includes marketing the Kenai Peninsula to places like the Interior.

"We're kind of an exotic destination for people from Fairbanks," she said.

Although the peninsula's roads are far from clogged with recreational vehicles, the poor economy hasn't stopped everyone from heading north. Visiting Kenai with his wife and another couple from Arkansas, retired Sears mechanic Jerry Russell said the group figured seeing Alaska on wheels would be more fun than flying up.

"We just wanted to see the country," he said.

Thus far, Russell said the trip has been worth every cent.

"It's really been an enjoyable trip," he said.

He's put more than 5,000 miles on his motor home, with "at least" another 5,000 left to go. And while many penny-pinching travelers may have elected to stay home this year, Russell said he's in no hurry to get back.

"When the money runs out we'll go home," he said.

Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.



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