Tourism surviving setbacks

Halfway through season, businesses say numbers show only slight changes

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

In spite of some negative indicators early in the season, tourism on the Kenai Peninsula has not suffered as badly from the Sept. 11 attacks or setbacks in the sportfishing industry as expected.

"It's not the big disaster that everybody predicted," said Dru Garson, marketing coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. "But it's not a record year, either. There are some people who have done better than others."

According to a report from the Alaska Tourism Office in the Alaska Division of Community and Business Development, the number of visitors to the state have dropped from last year.

The Alaska Monthly Arrival Report showed a 25 percent decline from May 2001 to May 2002 in visitors entering via the Alaska Highway, the only totally overland route those driving up from the Lower 48 can take to the peninsula.

There were increases in arrivals at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and via the Southeast Region of the Marine Highway Ferry System -- 11 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

However, the numbers for all methods of travel show an overall decrease of 17,878 visitors this year.

Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau Communications Director Jay Barrett said visitors to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center have declined 12.5 percent over the past year between the months of May and June. He said the lack of road system users, as reflected in the arrival report, is unexpected.

"The highway numbers are down, and that's a surprise to me," Barrett said. "Gas prices are down from last year. We get a lot of visitors who drive here in RVs. Maybe they're driving to places nearer to their homes, or maybe with everything going on in the stock market, there's not as much expendable income."

The Kenai River early run king salmon closing last month also was thought to have an impact on tourists visiting the peninsula. But the decline in tourism volume was not enough to panic some business owners.

The Aspen Hotel Soldotna has reported full or nearly-full bookings through the month of June and in the past weeks, said General Manager Rebecca Sorenson.

"The fishing business hasn't affected us," she said. "We thought it would have an impact, but revenue has been great. We're actually generating a little bit more revenue than our properties throughout the rest of the state."

Darlene Nichols, co-owner of Hooked On Fishing Gifts in Soldotna, said fewer visitors have not slowed down her sales.

"This year has been slower in drive-in business," she said referring to customers visiting from Outside. "I'm not getting the normal six to 10 groups a week that I got last year. (But) our volume is pretty consistent. My business isn't as volatile as some of the other gift businesses have been. We have a lot of repeat customers."

Diversification has been the key to surviving what was expected to be one of the worst tourism seasons. Some business owners catering to tourists have found alternatives to the hot-spot tourist attractions. Others benefited from the closings.

Sheri Lewis of Alaska River Guides in Soldotna said business did not take a hit in June because her clients were offered alternatives to king fishing, including saltwater trips out of the Kasilof River and rainbow trout charters.

"It really didn't hurt us that badly, because we're diversified," she said. "Actually, our June was OK. We didn't have any cancellations."

Sharon Baker, who co-owns Alaska Angler RV Resort and Afishunt Charters in Ninilchik said her business has steadily improved in spring and summer as compared to last year. She said the Kenai closings may have contributed to the gradual revenue increase.

"It might have helped our charters on the Kasilof (River)," Baker said. "There were some people who came to our park who said there was nothing to do in Soldotna."

Garson said the adversity impacting the peninsula, both great and small, may have had a more profound effect on visitors and on the area as a whole.

"It brought some exposure to different parts of the peninsula and got some people to see different parts that maybe they haven't seen before," he said. "Maybe they'll come back again."

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