Summer busy, but initial count of visitors down

Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Despite mile-long traffic jams into Soldotna on some days, giving the impression there were more tourists than ever, visitor counts have been down there and in Kenai.

The trend downward began in May, when 6,870 people visited the Soldotna Visitor Center, 410 less than in 2000. It was still, however, 1,511 more than in 1999.

June's visitation was 13,730, down 2,116 from 2000's 15,846. July saw 26,475 people visit, compared to 32,472 in 2000, a difference of 5,997. No numbers for the first half of August were available.

"I don't know why they're down," said visitor services manager Kim Mariman at the Soldotna Visitor Center. "It didn't feel like they were down. We were busy."

She said updates from the center's member businesses report half of them being as, or more, busy than last summer.

"Just a small percentage say it's worse, so that's good," she said.

She speculated the early closure of the red salmon fishing on the Kenai River may have kept some people away.

"Not being able to fish for reds is a big deal," she said. "People are going to go where the fish are."

As a result, Mariman said her office has been trying to promote non-fishing activities for visitors, such as the summer-long programs at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the nature walks provided by the Kenai Watershed Forum.

"We also sent a lot of people to Beachum Fisheries, where Liz Chase offer tours of her setnet site and (they) can buy salmon at 25 cents above fair market value," she said.

Road construction along the Sterling Highway through the heart of downtown Soldotna in May and June could easily be held responsible for both the lack of visitors to the center and the feeling that the roads were fuller than normal. Most of the on-road work was completed by early July, though sidewalk and lighting work continues.

Similar road work right past the front of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center could have accounted for fewer visitors there, too. Some days, motorists on the Kenai Spur Highway were forced to Bridge Access Road before they could turn on to Frontage Road and backtrack to the center.

The visitor center's Elise Bowen said May and June were down 1,000 visitors each compared to last summer. May saw 5,622 visitors this year, and June saw 10,374. In July, visitation was 17,451, down about 2,000 from the same period last year. Numbers so far for August show 4,927 people have visited, compared to 5,693 on the same date in 2000.

While the visitor centers' numbers only track how many people walk through their doors, it is a good indication of overall visitation. Another indication is highway traffic, but the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities does not release those numbers for a year.

"We haven't even gotten last year's numbers yet," Mariman said.

Another indication is inquiries to the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. Myra Arbelovsky of the council office said that so far this calendar year, about 18,000 people have called for information.

She said her office will conduct follow-up surveys of those people, and ask if they did come to the Kenai Peninsula after all. A report is usually done by December, she said.

Pat Dwinnell, president of the Kenai Peninsula Bed and Breakfast Association, said most of her organization's members did pretty well.

"I think the ones that were hurting were the new people who've only been in the business a short period of time," she said. "I know we did have several people who had some empty spaces when they ordinarily didn't."

She said it was too early to tell how this summer will shape up compared to last, since August and September of 2000 were very busy.

She said she's not surprised that the numbers of visitors were down overall.

"I'm not sure if it was the job market, gas prices or stock markets that caused them not to travel, or what," Dwinnell said.

She said she saw a lot of visitors who were wealthy enough not to be too affected by the stock market tumble or gas prices.

"We didn't see a lot of families or groups traveling," she said. "I saw a lot of people who worked in the stock market who said there was nothing happening so they took three or four months off."

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