'Mixed bag for our businesses' : In-state tourists travel on budget, visitors up overall on Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010

They came. They saw. They didn't spend much money.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Charlie Sturdavant of Golden, Colo., takes time to admire the flowers during a stop Saturday morning at Erik Hansen Scout Park on the bluff in Kenai. He said it was his third trip to Alaska.

While visitation was up on the Kenai Peninsula this year, the majority of guests seem to be "window vacationers" -- looking but not spending.

And with June's brief closure of the Kenai River and the still struggling national economy, tourism did not seem to make as big of an impact as it typically does locally.

"We definitely saw a huge influx of in-state visitors this year," said Shanon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council. "That filled in the holes we were seeing with national and international visitors, although those were better than they were last year."

But, "in-state visitors don't spend as much," she said.

The "bread and butter" of the Peninsula economy is the out-of-state and international visitors, she said. And this trend of more Alaskans visiting the Peninsula has impacted industry sectors differently.

"What we've seen is kind of a mixed bag for our businesses," Hamrick said. "A lot of our businesses like sightseeing tours, rafting, and people in those lines of work have seen increases in their work this year over last year," she said. "But fishing businesses have taken a hit and are still struggling."

She attributed the decrease in fishing business to a combination of factors, like the temporary closure of the Kenai River in June, as well as a cut in incentive travel, like companies sending best clients and employees on fishing trips.

"We've had one member lost $60,000 with the cancellation of one booking," she said.

A slow August

This has held true for Soldotna fishing guide Evertt McCullough, owner of Alaska's Last Frontier Fishing Lodge.

"This year has been really lousy," he said.

McCullough said in 2008 he was probably 20-percent overbooked. In 2009, he was down 30 percent from that and this year he's about 50 percent down from last year.

And he said this is something his fishing guide colleagues have experienced, as well.

There were mornings this season with only three guide boats on the Kenai River when there's typically about 20, McCullough said.

He said the last part of July was busy but everything outside of that has been slow.

"This the worst August we've ever had," he said.

Laura Pruett, co-owner of Soldotna's Bears Den Restaurant and Bakery, said things have really tapered off for her this month, too.

"Now we're in August and, oh my gosh, where is everybody?" she said. "It almost feels like September here."

She said some other local restaurants have begun laying off their summer crews -- something not typically done until after Labor Day.

Pruett said she's seen less motor home traffic through town from her eatery's spot at the corner of the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, too.


Alyssa Shanks, an economist with the state Department of Labor, confirmed this trend felt by businesses that mainly rely on out-of-state travelers.

She said her data from this season so far indicates businesses that rely on these type of tourists have had a much more difficult time than those that cater to in-state visitors.

Shanks said the department was anticipating significant statewide declines in leisure and hospitality businesses this year because of the loss of cruise ship passengers when the industry decided to remove some of its ships from the state last year.

However, "the numbers aren't showing the declines we expected," she said.

Shanks said she does not think the loss of cruise ship passengers really impacted the Peninsula.

According to data from the hospitality and leisure industry the state has collected from businesses on the Gulf Coast, including restaurants, arts, recreation, and lodging, the numbers from January to June of this year are about flat to last year's numbers.

"I don't think Alaska is doing that poorly economically," she said. She hypothesized that maybe last year in-state visitors did not travel as much because they were more hesitant and "waiting for the other shoe to drop."

But, "bad times did not come as expected" and the Alaskan visitors took their in-state vacations this summer.

Thrifty travelers

The thrifty traveler was something Lela Rosin, owner of the Kenai River Lodge, the Duck Inn, and the Upper Deck, experienced at her businesses this summer.

She said all three of her companies had an overall increase from last summer but she's had to coax her customers more with coupons and specials to get them through the doors.

"I feel like I made more deals with people this year," she said. "It seems like more people are on a budget and I respect that."

Rosin said that business at the Kenai River Lodge, which she has owned for three years, has been up 15 percent from last year. The Duck Inn's restaurant business was up 20 percent, bar business was down 2 percent and the lodging side was about flush to last year.

In terms of sheer numbers of visitors to the Peninsula, the information collected by the Kenai Municipal Airport and the Kenai Convention and Visitors Center show they are up.

Mary Bondurant, Kenai airport manager, said enplanements, or passengers boarding planes were up for July, exceeding 10,000 for the first time since 2008's more than 11,000 head count.

According to Natasha Ala, executive director of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, there was a 15-percent increase in the people who stopped in there this summer, as compared to last year.

"Demographically our visitors are independent travelers," she said.

The weather might have skewed these numbers though, Ala said, with people coming in to the bureau to the get out of the rain.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com

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