While the recession cut into the tourism business nationally and the 2008 implemented cruise ship head tax hurt the business in Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula is still a microcosm for what tourists seek in Alaska: mountains, glaciers and wildlife, said Shanon Hamrick.
“We’ve branded ourselves Alaska’s Playground, and that’s really what we are,” said Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. She said the Peninsula has everything but the Arctic.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough grossed $121.8 million in taxable sales during the second and third quarters of 2012, according to the borough’s website. The second and third quarters run from April to September, overlapping the tourism season for the Peninsula, May to September.
Each year, about 400,000 tourists visit the Peninsula during tourism season, Hamrick said.
Anchorage is the top source for the Kenai and Soldotna tourist visits, sending the Peninsula 36.6 percent of its tourists, she said. The next largest contributor is Seattle at 2.4 percent.
The meat of the tourism industry on the Peninsula is the independent traveler, she said. And compared to other areas in the state, the Peninsula is seeing an increase in that kind of visitor, she said.
The “long haul” tourists, or the older generation traveling in RVs, were once a staple subcomponent of the independent traveler, but the Peninsula has been seeing a decline in their visits, Hamrick said.
She said rising gas prices, the recession and the population’s increasing age are likely responsible for the decline.
But, Hamrick said the “fly-drive” tourists — those who fly into Anchorage and drive down — are still visiting the Peninsula at the same rate.
“If you look at those two, the long haul traffic and then the fly-drive,” she said, “the Interior has been impacted more negatively than the Kenai Peninsula has because that long haul (and fly-drive) traffic isn’t coming through Tok and Fairbanks.”
Another significant subset of the independent traveler comes from cruise ships, Hamrick said.
Judging distances and required times is intimidating for many Lower 48 tourists when planning a trip to the large state, so cruise ships are a popular way to visit Alaska because they are easy, she said.
The cruise ship trips do not immediately put money in the Peninsula, but they set the hook for return trips, she said. While Homer, Seward and Anchorage are the only ports of call in the area and the tourists generally do not spend a lot of money in those communities when they disembark, about 30 percent of them return to the state, she said.
“The positive thing about cruise ship tourism is it introduces people to Alaska, because it can be a fairly intimidating place to visit,” she said.
Many of those returning tourists come back to the Peninsula as independent travelers, she said. “And they’re the ideal visitor for the Kenai Peninsula.”
Looking forward, Hamrick said a significant variable in the tourism business is the fishing industry. Of the total tourists from Anchorage, 73 percent come down for fishing.
Following the poor return of king salmon this past season, many Peninsula fishing businesses suffered, she said. To prepare for potential fluctuations in the future, she said businesses must be diverse and proactive.
“What we saw last year when the king fishery shut down really devastated some businesses, and others were able to change their business model a little bit and take people out (sockeye) fishing and treat them to a salmon lunch barbecued on the bank of the river,” she said.
Another area to focus on is event tourism, she said.
By highlighting events — such as Salmonstock, the Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival or the Kenai Peninsula Fair — the Peninsula can draw tourists during the off seasons and even to more remote communities.
“Event tourism is growing nationally and we have an opportunity to develop that and create a huge event,” she said.
Ecotourism is another market in tourism that is growing, Hamrick said. She said this market attracts mainly younger ages, which is a niche market for the Peninsula. On average the Peninsula tourists are three or four years younger that the state’s market.
“That’s because our market is a little bit more active and adventure-seeking,” she said. “In all of our marketing we tend to focus on a younger demographic in our photography and things along those lines.”
In the future Hamrick also said the Peninsula will continue to work with Anchorage to attract more tourism.
Currently, she said, KPTMC is working with the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau in Anchorage to draw more conventions to the Peninsula.
“Any kind of business that you can think of is going to have some type of association that wants bring everybody together so that they can work on legislation that might be affec’ting their industry,” she said. “So they all have conventions.”
The Dena’ina Center in Anchorage draws between 300 and a 1,000 visitors for a single convention, she said.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.