Jim and Nancy Fortier of Portland, Ore., load groceries into their camper in Kenai Saturday afternoon. Nancy Fortier said the price of gas had made their trip more expensive but they were trying to take it in stride. "This is a once in a lifetime trip," she said. "We'll worry about it later."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Alaskans and visitors from Outside may be grumbling at the high price of gasoline and diesel, but it appears they remain perfectly willing to top off those RV tanks and hit the highways in search of nightless summertime adventure and fish without bound.
An informal, purely unscientific poll of local tourist industry businesses in the central and lower Kenai Peninsula showed hotels, RV parks, campgrounds, charter boat operators and others generally are seeing or expect to see a very good tourist season.
"We're not seeing any changes" from last year, said Tom Timmel, vice president of Alaska Wildland Adventures which, among other things, had been running Kenai Riverside Campground near Cooper Landing for the past three years. Between 80 and 85 percent of his business comes from serving folks from Outside.
"Last year was better than our first, and so far, this year looks good," Timmel said. "You might think gas prices would affect day fishing and rafting trips, but both of those are strong."
Bill Tooker drove to Kenai from Phoenix, Ariz., in a motorhome with his wife and their dog. While enjoying the sunshine near the Kenai bluff Saturday, Tooker said fuel prices didn't impact he and his wife's decision to make the drive north.
"Our big plan was to come up," he said. "We never thought about the cost."
Tooker said he believes a trip to Alaska is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that is more important than the extra cost associated with high gasoline prices.
"Life has no guarantees," he said.
Although many of his clients fly from Outside and rent automobiles here, Jim Golden, owner of the Sports Den in Soldotna, a fishing guide business, said those using the highway don't seem overly concerned about the price of fuel.
"I don't think people driving up here are worried about a couple of hundred dollars worth of gas," he said.
Roughly 60 percent of Alaska Sports Den's clients are from Outside, the rest from elsewhere in Alaska.
"We're not seeing any changes in the numbers," he said.
The same was true for "RW" Weilbacher, owner of Big Eddy Resort on the Kenai River in Soldotna, who said the tourists continue to arrive despite the price of gas. But then, that's the way it's always been, he said.
"I've watched this for years and every year the gas price has gone up," he said. "There hasn't been one year that it has slowed them down. Nothing slows 'em down. Think about it. What's it going to cost them, maybe $200 to $300 total for the whole year?"
The average price of a tank of regular unleaded gasoline in Alaska on Friday was $2.288 per gallon. Diesel was selling for $2.338 a gallon, according to Triple-A's online fuel gauge report, which tracks national and state-by-state fuel prices daily. (www.fuelgaugereport.com).
Those prices aren't far off the national averages Friday of $2.227 per gallon of regular and $2.391 per gallon of diesel.
A year ago, Alaska prices were lower, averaging $2.127 per gallon of regular and $1.973 per gallon of diesel. So were national prices, which hovered at $1.901 and $1.776, respectively.
Ron Peck, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, headquartered in Anchorage, said much of their data from June still had to be gathered, compiled and analyzed, but he did offer what he said was anecdotal information that led him to conclude tourists are coming regardless of gas prices and that the 2005 tourist season is shaping up well.
"I was just out at Ship Creek Landing RV Park this morning, he said Friday. "They had one open stall at 7 a.m. We are hearing that it's going to be a great season across the board."
Peck said Triple A's analysis has suggested a price barrier in the $2.50 to $3 range at which the traveling public begins to balk and stay home.
"We haven't gotten there yet," he said. "Our prices, in some cases, are less than those in places like San Francisco and Seattle."
Peck said one result is that more Alaskan RV enthusiasts may be staying in Alaska rather than hauling Outside.
As for folks driving from the Lower 48, many of those are simply fulfilling long-held dreams of the "I'm-going-to-visit-Alaska-before-I-die" variety. They've been planning for years, and for them, the gas price is no object.
At the Uptown Motel in Kenai, front desk clerk Maggie Sullens said the 48-room facility is pretty much booked for the rest of the summer, and that it appears this year will be at least as good as last year.
Suzanne Legner, desk clerk at the Riverside House in Soldotna said it's been a pretty typical summer there, too. That is, they are booked up.
"It doesn't seem we have been affected all that much," she said. "None of our customers have complained."
It is a different story at the 28-space RV park run by the company.
"We haven't had more than maybe six of our spaces filled at any one time," she said, adding that she hadn't attributed the slow occupancy rate to anything in particular, but acknowledged that perhaps gas price was a factor.
"It costs a lot to run those RVs," she said.
Down in Homer the high fuel prices are having an impact on the small charter operators.
Garth Bradshaw, owner of Central Charters Booking Agency, which serves several charter operators, said they are seeing somewhat fewer clients than last year, perhaps 10 percent less, though he did not have raw numbers at hand to back that up.
"I don't know if fuel costs are a contributing factor or not," he said. "Most charters have tacked on a fuel fee to try to recover some of that. The larger tour boats are trying to absorb it."
Shanon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said that generally, they were not seeing a big impact, though border crossings apparently are down, as they were last year. Hamrick said the numbers were down in terms of actual people because there were fewer tour busses. However, in terms of vehicles, the numbers were slightly up, she said, because there were more independent travelers.
Other data clearly shows a great interest in travel to Alaska, she noted.
"Our inquiry numbers are up considerably, so if you're asking if tourism is taking a hit because of gas prices, the answer is no," she said.
Clarion reporter Matt Tunseth contributed to this story.
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