Juneau businesses see decline in independent travelers

JUNEAU -- A predicted slowdown in travel to Juneau in the wake of Sept. 11 has left the cruise ship industry unscathed, but may be taking a toll on local businesses that depend on independent travelers.

No firm numbers are available yet, but anecdotal evidence from a wide variety of Juneau establishments catering to independent travelers shows a slowdown in bookings and an increase in cancellations for the key summer season of mid-May through mid-September.

Independent travelers, or generally any visitor to Alaska who isn’t coming on a prearranged package tour, are thought to provide an important boost to local economies, said Caryl McConkie, tourism program manager with the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

"That’s a concern," McConkie said. "People think of (independent travelers) as people that are coming, staying overnight ... purchasing tours locally, that sort of thing. They’re the tourists many of the communities and businesses want."

Unlike cruise ship passengers, who often are in town for only a few hours, independent travelers eat, shop and tour around Juneau and other Southeast towns, taking advantage of local hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts and small-scale travel activities like charter fishing.

In 1993, purely independent travelers made up 44 percent of the Alaska summer market, said McConkie, who also oversees the Alaska Visitor’s Statistics Program, a statewide research project on the visitor industry, conducted four times since 1985.

Last year’s survey found that independent travelers made up only 30 percent of Alaska’s summer tourism totals, or approximately 360,840 of the 1,202,800 people who came to Alaska from May to September 2001.

Of that total, anywhere from 100,000 to 160,000 reach Juneau each year, said Lorene Kappler, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nonprofit organization that works to increase independent travel to the capital.

That number, which is based on summer occupancy rates, has remained relatively flat for the last 10 years, Kappler said. With the 2002 summer season heating up, she’s hearing a mix of predictions about business prospects.

"It’s hard to have a broad brushstroke because different people operate their businesses differently," Kappler said. "Anecdotally, I’ve heard different stories, from ’I can’t believe how well things are,’ to ’I’m down 40 percent.’ Overall, it isn’t as strong a market as it’s been."

That overall decline is taking its toll on local operations, both large and small. Goldbelt Inc., Alaska’s urban Native corporation, lost $4.4 million for fiscal year 2001. The loss partially stemmed from a weak independent travel market, Gary Droubay, president and chief executive, told the Juneau Empire June 4.

For smaller operations, the costs of the decline also have been dramatic. Phil Greeney closed the doors on his bed-and-breakfast, the Mt. Juneau Inn, this summer. He and wife, Karen, who began operating the bed-and-breakfast in 1995, saw double-digit increases in client numbers until the economy ran into trouble in 2001, Greeney said.

"It was flat," Greeney said of the 2001 summer season. "(Business) didn’t pick up anywhere as we were used to it picking up. ... A big part of it was the state of the economy and then when Sept. 11 came that just really finished it."

Many businesses cited last fall’s terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., as a likely cause of the drop in reservations by independent travelers. Several also noted a decline in foreign visitors.

"From what I’ve heard, people that are in Europe don’t want to travel to America at this point in time because of the terrorist activities and the waiting and everything in the airports," said Joshua Zeller, front desk manager for the Breakwater Inn, Restaurant and Lounge.

Mike Bethers, who has owned the charter fishing service Silver King Marine since 1995, said he had cancellations of long-standing charters for the first time this summer. All five parties canceled because of Sept. 11-related issues, including fear of flying and their own required military service.

Other business owners attributed declining numbers to increased traffic from cruise ships.

06/16/2002 - 8:00pm