Late-arriving red salmon, high gasoline prices and even cloudy weather seemed to have conspired to create a mixed-bag summer tourist season in the central Kenai Peninsula, say visitor industry members.
Unsure that the annual sockeye return would appear, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed access to the Kenai River last month, only reopening the internationally popular fishing venue last week when fish finally began to arrive in numbers.
Unable to cast their lines into the river, anglers, it appears, often looked for other opportunities.
The number of people walking through the doors of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce office actually increased, said Executive Director Michelle Glaves.
“Some were not real happy,” she said.
When provided information about the fish run totals, most were understanding, coming to see the river closures as necessary for the betterment of returns in years to come, she said.
The chamber helped people find and book fly-outs to fishing spots across Cook Inlet, Glaves said. Other folks headed south to the Kasilof River or down to the lower Kenai Peninsula in search of halibut and other species. Nevertheless, the impact of the poor run on the Kenai had some ripple effects, she said.
“We did see some campgrounds (attendance) go down,” Glaves said, adding the decline appears to have been the result of in-state residents, especially from Anchorage, not coming.
“On the flip side of all this is that since the reds came in later, we’re seeing people stay a little longer,” Glaves said.
High gasoline prices also may have discouraged some visitors, said Janie Odgers, executive director of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m hearing (from the business community) that it’s been a slow season,” she said. Gas prices “have kept people home or they’re not driving as far as Alaska. That’s what I’m hearing from restaurants, lodge owners and small shops. Some think the season’s over right now.”
The rainy weather in June and July may have affected the decisions of in-state visitors, she said, but those from Outside likely made their plans well in advance and came ready to accept whatever weather they got.
Hoteliers reported similar experiences.
Debbie Swearingen, front desk clerk at the Riverside House in Soldotna, said the hotel had few cancellations. Guests unable to fish the Kenai simply found other things to do. Still, numbers were down a bit.
“It could have been busier,” she said. “We usually are at this time.”
Where Riverside House noted a measurable decline was in its 28-space RV park. In a good year, the park has overflow and must turn RVers away.
“Our RV park did not do as well,” she said. “We were a little over half full at times.
Over at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna, General Manager Rebecca Sorenson reported a good summer season, even though fishing had been curtailed in July. Much of the Aspen’s business comes from return visitors.
“A huge portion are Alaskans traveling within the state,” she said.
Regular annual fishing tournaments have helped attract many return visitors, she said. More importantly, perhaps, community marketing efforts pitching the peninsula as a destination for a variety of activities, not just fishing, are paying off, Sorenson said.
“It’s been a good year for us,” she said. “People gasped at the price of gas, but they still need that time away. People are still traveling.”
Some anglers unable to cast lines stopped by the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
“When people weren’t able to fish the Kenai River, we moved them to other rivers,” said Executive Director Mya Renken. “We sent them to Wolverine Creek on the west side of Cook Inlet. We have four flightseeing (bureau members) companies that will take people there.”
Numbers actually were up at the visitors center, Renken said. Visitors there showed interest in local tours, including to Kenai Landing and Old Town, particularly when the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church was open, she said.
However, the bed-and-breakfast businesses and the Airport Hotel in Kenai that provide the bureau with data were reporting more in the way of unfilled accommodations on their books than normal.
“We are not sure if it’s a combination of fishing, weather, fuel prices or what,” Renken said.
On the other hand, Kenai Peninsula Bed and Breakfast Association President John Steckel said the association’s 33 member businesses have been busy this summer.
“I don’t think we were adversely affected,” he said. “As an association, we were busy. I think most members were pleased.”
While some may have expressed concern about the absence of fish, he said, how a client reacted might have had a lot to do with his or her level of experience with Alaska.
“Those here for the first time don’t have the same expectations as those who are repeat customers,” he said. “Maybe (first-timers) were more disappointed. The guys with Alaska experience know the cycles. They deal with it.”
“That’s our job as servers to promote the whole area, not just how many fish they can put in their coolers,” Steckel said.
It is simply too early to tell whether borough sales tax revenues are being impacted by the summer’s odd realities, said Troy Tankersley with the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Sales Tax Division.
“But I have a feeling that revenues will drop in the third quarter because of what happen the red run and Fish and Game calling off the river the way they did took away a lot of the tourist activity on the river,” he said.
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