You and your family are driving through Kenai, headed back to Anchorage to fly home, when you pass hundreds of people gathered in front of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
You step out of your car and walk over. A couple under a popup is selling Alaskan-made belt buckles, and a women under another tent is selling knives set in moose antler.
“What’s going on?” you wonder as you reach for your wallet.
It’s the Kenai Saturday Farmer’s Market and you, like many other visitors, are about to contribute to a rapidly growing trend.
“Event tourism is growing nationally and we have an opportunity to develop that,” said Shanon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.
Local events — like farmer’s markets, fairs and festivals — draw tourists from their cars on their way back to the airport and from around the state, nation and world. And wherever tourist go, so do the dollars, Hamrick said.
Hamrick said the Kenai Birding Festival is a local event that has international draw. “It’s a niche group of people, but they come from all over the country and even internationally,” she said.
While the Kenai Peninsula is a haven for tourists between May and September, during the off season the business dwindles on the Peninsula, she said.
But through local events, Hamrick said the Peninsula can draw tourism dollars to its communities during the off season. Certain events, like the birding festival, are even marked on tourist’s calendars months in advanced.
Ken Tarbox, president of the Keen Eye Birders, said the birding festival not only brings 200 to 500 bird watchers throughout the state, country and world for a single event, it also sets the hook for their return.
“What happens at the festival is they get introduced to areas they can’t cover in two or three days,” he said.
Because the Peninsula has a diverse range of birds visible from the roads that are available no where else in the world, tourists return throughout the year to see what they missed, Tarbox said.
Tourists also travel to communities outside the mainstream circuit for local events, said Lara McGinnis, Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds coordinator.
“We’re a tourism-driven community,” she said, about Ninilchik, where the fairgrounds are located. “We live and die by the tourists.”
The pig race, held annually at the fair grounds, draws several hundred tourists each year, and about a half of the July 4 rodeo crowd visit from elsewhere, she said.
“They’re definitely spending money at the (Kenai Peninsula) fair,” she said. “They’re paying to get in, they’re paying to buy the food, they’re looking for that cool Alaskan art-something-piece to take home, and they’re spending money with the vendors.”
Similar to the birding festival, McGinnis said the Kenai Peninsula Fair brings tourists back year after year.
Some of the events change tourists’ schedules, even, said Matt Phyala, organizer of the Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival.
Tourists who travel to the Peninsula to fish for a few days often fill the rest of their weeks with events like the beer festival, he said.
The beer festival drew 1,500 people last year, he said. About a third of them were tourists, he said.
“I think a big part is the love of craft brewing,” he said. “There is a following of people that try to attend as many of the craft brewing festivals over the years.”
Hamrick said KPTMC is currently brainstorming events to hold that would tap into all the communities on the Peninsula, like a bike race.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.