SOLDOTNA (AP) -- The summer tourist season appears stronger than ever at Soldotna although several other Kenai Peninsula communities may not be seeing that trend.
''I think the visitors are way up from last year and the year before,'' Kim Mariman, visitor services manager at the chamber's Soldotna Visitors' Center, told the Soldotna City Council.
Visitor counts at the end of June were up 44 percent over last year's totals for early summer and the tally, effective Saturday, was above July's counts in previous years, Mariman said.
Mariman said part of Soldotna's success may be due to a large banner the chamber hung in front of the building. But the spike in interest puzzles her.
''We don't know. Maybe Soldotna has been discovered this year,'' she said.
Homer and Seward, however, were showing declines for the same period.
''For the month of June, we're down about a thousand visitors,'' said Patty Bue, office manager at the Homer visitors' center.
Homer counted 2,187 visitors in June, the lowest tally in a decade.
The numbers at Seward also were believed down, said Edith Haas, office manager at the Seward Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors' Bureau.
''Our counts are kind of hard to do,'' she told the Peninsula Clarion. ''We don't know that we really are down. Our tracking system is not the best.''
Preliminary counts from May and June for the Seward visitors' center, the Alaska SeaLife Center and the National Park Service show fewer visitors than for the same period of 1999.
The Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, only 15 minutes from Soldotna, said the visitor count was running at about the same level as last year.
''I have to characterize the season so far as rather on the flat side,'' said Director Kathy Tarr. ''This is an anomaly.''
Visitations in May set records, which Tarr attributed to the popularity of a wildlife art exhibit. June was about the same as last year, with 12,000 visitors.
But the normal peak month of July is lagging.
''We will probably be a little bit below July for last year,'' Tarr said. ''That is very surprising.''
Haas believes construction on the Seward Highway contributed to the decline, although it also brought some unexpected business Seward's way.
Staff at the visitors' center have talked with people who missed the turnoff to Soldotna, Kenai and Homer because of the road work at the Sterling Highway junction this summer.
But the biggest factor seems to be higher gasoline prices, Haas said.
''That is what a lot of people have complained about,'' she said. ''I know it curbed my driving.''
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