While Alaska is projected to have another historic year for tourism, how visitors get to the Kenai Peninsula is still up in the air.
Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council Executive Director Shanon Hamrick said as a result of lower gas prices a lot of interested independent travelers have contemplated driving a recreational vehicle up to the last frontier over flying into Anchorage and renting from there.
The February short-term outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed January to be the seventh consecutive month for the price-per-barrel of oil to be in decline and forecasts continued low prices in 2015.
For Hamrick, continued low prices for oil and subsequent at-the-pump savings may be a good thing, as motor home traffic typically increases.
“Its all good for the Kenai Peninsula. I’ve seen a shift from out of state plates on the road to rental RVs the last five years,” she said.
Between the three transportation routes used by tourists get to Alaska, Hamrick said more than 52 percent come via cruise ship to cities like Juneau, Ketchikan and Seward. The remainder are divided between flying and driving, she said. Travelers who are not using a packaged vacation plan tend to visit the Kenai Peninsula at a high rate due to its proximity to Anchorage, she said.
More than 1.9 million people visited Alaska between May 2013 and April 2014, according to the Alaska Division of Economic Development — an all-time high for the state.
The 2015 tourism season is expected to be another record-breaking one between expanded air service travel and increased tourism marketing, Hamrick said.
Jerry Dunn, owner of the Beluga Lookout Lodge and RV Park in Kenai, said last year was his best ever. Located in Old Town overlooking the mouth of the Kenai River, Dunn said guests book up to a year in advance to be able to reserve a spot in July during dipnet season.
Beluga RV Park has 65 hook-up sites and five rooms in the lodge. The price of the RV campsites range from $45 a night in May and September to $75 a night for a view site from July 10-31.
“People come to my place for the scenery and the fishing,” he said. “July is absolutely crazy. The amount of people here is unreal.”
Dunn said he has guests from all over the world stay at his park. He said if gas prices continue to stay below $3 a gallon he expects to see more motor homes in 2016 because a lot of spots are already booked for July and were snatched up before the prices started to drop.
While the 2014 tourist season brought a 1.5 percent increase in sales tax to the borough from last year, total revenue was down nearly $700,000. According to tourism sales tax figures from the borough finance department, Hamrick said she found that while accommodations rose 1.85 percent to $61.3 million, total revenue for fishing guides dropped by 3 percent down to $43.3 million.
A quarter of all sales tax in the borough comes from tourism, Hamrick said.
Hamrick said fishing restrictions on king salmon had a major impact on guides.
Despite the recent downtrend, fishing is still a key draw for tourists.
“State research shows the top three reasons people come to Alaska are mountains, glaciers and wildlife,” she said. “We have those things better than anybody else. We should be promoting it and providing businesses services to get out and experience all Alaska has to offer.”
While the Kenai Peninsula ranks behind the port cities of Juneau and Ketchikan for most visitors to the state, Hamrick said cruise visitors skew the numbers.
Seward is the top tourist destination on the Kenai Peninsula and brought in more than $38 million in tourism-related sales tax, while Homer generated more than $27 million last year.
Bed and breakfast inns within the borough saw the biggest increase with more than $14 million in revenue for the third quarter of 2014, more than double the total from the second quarter.
In 2013, third quarter numbers totaled $12 million. Hamrick said those numbers show more independent travelers are making their way to the peninsula.
About 30 percent of people who come on a cruise return to Alaska as an independent traveler, Hamrick said.
With the tourism marketing council’s increased efforts to help small businesses improve their social media and web presence to attract visitors and the market trends, she estimates another 1.5 to 2 percent increase in tourism this year.
Hamrick jokes the recent increase in Alaska reality TV shows could be a factor for why tourists choose to travel north.
“I have lived here my whole life and I’m still blown away by the beautiful (mountain) views here,” she said. “Everybody wants to come see the big, fluffy bears.”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org