Tourism bookings strengthen as industry holds its breath

Photo by M. Scott Moon/Peninsula Clarion
KENAI -- Nine months after terrorist attacks struck a blow to the travel industry, tourism is trying to crawl back from a near demise. The concern for safe travel may turn out to be a boon to Alaska and, in particular, the Kenai Peninsula travel market, despite a snail’s pace start in the booking season.

Alaska Travel Industry Association spokesman Mark Morones said some work may help ease a rut that the Alaska tourism industry has slipped into of late.

"The tourism industry in Alaska has been a growth industry, and that growth is slowing down," he said. "We (are) trying very hard to encourage people within the state to travel and take advantage of all the things there are to see up here."

He said ATIA is attempting to shift the focus of its marketing strategy accordingly, with a recent "Find Your Alaska" promotion running on TV and a Web site in the past months.

"We were offering Alaska resident specials," Morones said. "We’re trying to basically encourage our members to offer discounts to Alaska residents. We had about 34 members who participated in this go-around."

Homer expects to fare well from Alaskans visiting the state. Derotha Ferraro, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said this is a trend for the city, which is right on course for a successful season.

"So far, so good," she said. "Homer is a repeat destination. We’re a pretty safe bet. Our No. 1 visitors are Alaskans.

"Alaskans tend not to make reservations. If the weather is good, they come."

Jay Barrett, director of communications for the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the late start to the season gave many doubts. But he said he is looking forward to more vacationers arriving as the season goes on.

"We’re very optimistic," he said. "Although spring might be a little late, the visitors seem to be on time."

An ATIA survey conducted in March found a 12 percent drop in travel inquiries and a 13 percent drop in bookings compared with the same time last year. These numbers, however, were improvements over February and December 2001 figures.

Tourism businesses have felt this decline, but many business owners say they still have a positive outlook.

Princess Tours spokesperson Tom Dow said his company is expecting some improvement in reservations after a slow start in bookings last fall.

"Most of the people that we talk to feel much better about the way Alaska is going to go than we did back in the fall," Dow said. "The challenge is making up for last fall, where you usually start getting some early business on the books."

Tim Worthem is chief executive of Premiere Alaska Tours of Anchorage, a company that operates charter buses from Anchorage to the peninsula. He echoed Dow’s sentiment on playing catch-up on lost reservations.

"For Alaska, a lot of bookings get planned in the fall," he said. "And that didn’t happen last year. In January, booking picked up, but it’s hard to make up for what you missed."

Soldotna Visitor Center Coordinator Shanon Hamrick said progress is in the making.

"Things were really down at the beginning of the year," she said. "But they’re rebounding."

Helen Marrs, Seward Chamber of Commerce executive director, and Kenai Fjords reservation supervisor Sarah Hanson both said the foreign market’s loss is Alaska’s gain.

"Reservations are up," Hanson said. "Our theory is that all of the people that were going to travel to Europe are going to stay and travel domestic."

Marrs agreed, saying cruise ship passengers coming into Seward are equal to last year’s numbers.

"It seems to be many people are choosing Alaska as a travel destination rather than an overseas trip," Marrs said.

Morones said whether tourists will spend money when they arrive is hard to tell. Particularly with so many customers taking advantage of discounted fares, retailers worry that more frugal travelers will be less likely to spend when they come on shore.

Those travelers wanting to get here by the road system seem to have more incentive to come now as well, Barrett said.

"People who are booking RV (recreational vehicle) reservations said their bookings are up over last year," he said. "That’s indicative of the fact that gas prices are lower than last summer, and people are not as eager to fly with security concerns."

Joanne Martin, of Diamond M Ranch in Kenai, gave her prognosis of the summer as a whole in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks.

"I think it’s going to hurt us a little," she said, "but we’re still optimistic."

06/02/2002 - 8:00pm