Not too hot, not too cold, but Kenai Peninsula's tourism season still not just right

Posted: Friday, September 06, 2002

Despite fears that Alaska would see a drop in visitors following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this year's Kenai Peninsula tourism season was relatively strong.

And the tourists who did stay home may have been influenced more by uneasiness over fishing on the Kenai River than concerns about cross-country travel.

Area businesses, especially those who rely primarily on the sport fishing industry, attributed a sluggish May and June to a poor early run of king salmon on the Kenai River, not Sept. 11 fears or a shaky economy.

"When people can't fish, you can't sell fishing tackle," said Richard Hatt, owner of The Tackle Box in Soldotna.

Hatt said business at his tackle shop didn't pick up until after July 1, when anglers and other tourists combined to bring the last two months of the season up to respectable levels.

"July was real good," Hatt said.

Hatt speculated that people simply waited until the summer's peak before making the trip to the peninsula.

"People are starting to know and starting to learn (July is) the best time of the summer to come. A lot can't afford to take a chance on May and June," Hatt said.

Hatt's job is to tell people where the hot fishing holes are. It's the job of the people who staff area visitor centers to tell tourists where to find guys like Hatt. Soldotna visitor's center coordinator Shanon Hamrick said this summer saw slightly fewer visitors than last year, but she agreed with Hatt that the late-season surge helped quite a bit.

"We have seen it wind down, even though we have seen it going a bit more strongly than we did last September. I'd say after Labor Day is really the down time. And it drops off really quickly," she said.

While there may have been fewer visitors, the ones who were here appeared to be spending more, Hamrick said.

"Our retail shop sales were up 39 percent. I know most of country wasn't spending money, but our visitors were," she said.

Jay Barrett, director of communications for the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the number of visitors to the Kenai center was down slightly from last year.

"Visitors to the center were down overall 4 percent from last year," Barrett said. However, he also said a late season surge helped keep the center's staff busy.

"There seemed to be a lot of people who didn't have (hotel) reservations. I was surprised at the amount of people who were making last-minute accommodation plans," Barrett said.

Barrett said he didn't think the season was anywhere near as dismal as preseason predictions may have indicated.

"Just from my observation, it looked like every RV park in town was full, and some of them looked like they were overflowing," he said.

People waiting to come to the area until the last minute may have hurt some businesses who rely on a steady stream of summer traffic to stay afloat.

Dru Garson, marketing coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council Inc., said this season appeared to be just OK for most business owners.

Garson said the results of a survey the marketing council distributed to area businesses last month showed business owners overall felt the tourist season could have gone better, but it also could have been worse.

"Some people are saying it was good," he said. "Some are saying otherwise."

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