'09 visitor season a slow one: Tourism industry down, bracing for hit in 2010

Posted: Friday, September 11, 2009

The kids are back in school, the air is getting crisp and the leaves are turning yellow. There's plenty of ways to tell that summer is on the way out, but if you needed one more, the tourists are disappearing.

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Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
The Adler family of Delray Beach, Fla., hikes along the shoreline of Grewingk Glacier Lake last July.

Now that the last big vacation weekend of summer has passed, tourism-related businesses are reproting that visitors to the Kenai Peninsula didn't quite have the same impact as they have in the past.

Asked to say how much the tourism industry was impacted by the economy this summer, Shanon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council, struggled to put her finger on an exact number.

"It's such a mixed bag, we're hearing everything from businesses being flat to down 50 to 60 percent, so it's really all over the board," Hamrick said.

A good indicator for the region was that the Ted Stevens International Airport and car rental business in Anchorage were both down about 21 percent, according to Hamrick.

If anyone felt the brunt of the poor economy, it was the guide industry Hamrick said.

Lodges and charter services that relied on "incentive trips," fishing trips paid for by businesses looking to reward clients or employees, struggled the most to fill rooms and seats.

"Those trips were just really hit hard this year," she said.

Mel Krogseng, the owner and operator of Krog's Kamp off of Big Eddy Road in Soldotna, said her business was down 50 to 60 percent this summer.

Less business for her means she hires and sub-contracts out to fewer guides.

Krogseng said she normally has three or four guides working for her but this year only had one full-time and another part-time.

"We also do a lot of booking with High Adventure (Air Charters). Our expenditures there were way down. People were not taking the more expensive trips, and fly-outs are the top of the list," she said.

She also didn't send as much business to saltwater charters.

Steve Anderson, the owner operator of Soldotna B&B Lodge and Alaska Fishing Charters had a similar story to tell.

Anderson, who sets up adventure travel packages that include fishing, flightseeing, kayaking, glacier cruises, horseback riding and more, said business was down about 50 percent this summer.

"If I'm down 50 percent then anybody that works for me will be down," Anderson said, explaining that he sent less business to the outfitters he works with and guides he contracts with.

Both Krogseng and Anderson pointed the blame toward the economic crisis.

While the economy has continued to slide in the past year, gas prices were not nearly as brutal this summer.

Sheila Lovett, the owner operator of Klondike RV Park and Cabins on Funny River Road in Soldotna said she was only down 15 percent.

The park has 27 sites designed for large RVs.

Lovett said her operation largely depends on business from Outside.

Area campgrounds held their own however, prospering off of in-state travelers.

"The economy has the same impact as five-dollar-a-gallon gas," said Andrew Carmichael, the parks and recreation director for the City of Soldotna.

Carmichael said that the volume of campground stays were consistent this summer with last year.

Though his office doesn't keep track of where campers are from, he said weekends were particularly busy, indicating many visitors were residents.

The down economy likely kept more Alaskans at home, opting for "staycations."

Carmichael pointed out that poor returns and emergency closures on some of the popular Upper Cook Inlet Fisheries also helped to drive more anglers south.

The sunny weather played a role as well.

Hamrick said that while getting Alaskans to visit the peninsula is good, they don't have the same economic impact as Outsiders.

"They're here to enjoy Alaska's playground, but they can do so more economically. They bring their tents, campers, and food down with them," she said.

Hamrick said she expects to see a fallout from this year within the tourism industry.

"I definitely think we'll see a backlash," she said.

From conversations she's had with those in the guiding industry, she said she expects to see 50 fewer guides next year.

She said she expects to see the impact across the board, too.

"I'm seeing a couple different things. "Some of our more established business owners are starting to want to get out. They're tired and we're seeing some closing simply because people are wanting to retire," she said.

What's next?

"All indications are that next year will be harder hit than this year," Hamrick, said of the outlook for 2010.

"It's going to be a tough year and people need to buckle down and be prepared for it," she said.

Krogseng was a little more optimistic, calling it a "wait and see" situation.

"If the stock market picks up then I think the season will pick up," she said.

Certainly one factor that won't help the central peninsula or the state as a whole is the loss of 120,000 cruise ship passengers who won't be visiting next summer.

"While those cruise ship passengers aren't our optimum visitor, there is a certain percent that become independent travelers, and those absolutely are our bread and butter, so when you don't have that transportation bringing people here there's going to be an impact," she said.

The redeployment of cruise ships means more than just a loss of physical visitors though. It also means the cruise industry is going to spend fewer marketing dollars on the state.

What happens with the cruise industry may result in a loss of business that could be felt for several years to come.

She noted that 30 percent of cruise ship passengers return to the state, often as independent travelers.

Hamrick said she's continuing to deliver the same message to her membership.

With fewer potential clients she's been urging them to market themselves aggressively. She's also encouraging them to work together and create packages so visitors can put together the vacation they want without a lot of hassle.

KPTMC plans to hold a one-day crash course in finance management later this year.

"We're trying to give members some tools to help weather this storm," she said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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