’16 visitor season beats ’15

Busy. Packed. Barn busters. Steady. Excellent.

In a survey of Homer tourist businesses last week, that’s how some described the season. While a few said the season didn’t turn out to be quite as busy as expected, most said the season ended on a high note, with visits up from slightly to as much as 15 percent over 2015.

The Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center saw almost 12,000 visitors through Labor Day — 11,878 from May to Sept. 5. The Halibut Derby Shack on the Spit had 2,682 visitors through the end of August. The week of July 17-23, the chamber saw a record-breaking 1,042 visitors at the visitor center, with July 21 breaking the daily record with 219 guests, according to a report from the chamber. In 2015, the daily record was 94 guests. In addition to visitors from Alaska, Canada, Europe and the Lower 48, the visitor center also welcomed guests from Cuba, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Thailand, South Africa and Easter Island.

The chamber and visitor center did a meet-and-great at incoming cruise ships, counting a total of 3,168 passengers who visited by cruise line between May and August.

On the Homer Spit, from July to early August, finding a parking spot could be a challenge, even in the big lot between Ramps 3 and 4. Parking also could be difficult in town; Homer Police noticed more traffic around town.

“It was a very busy tourist season,” said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. “Traffic was very heavy at times. We all noticed things moving slower and a lot of congestion around Homer.”

While police saw a few more accidents than usual, most involved locals, Robl said. The increase in tourists didn’t lead to an increase in crime.

“The tourists just being here make it a busy place, but they don’t cause problems,” he said.

Robl said police also didn’t seen much in the way of crimes targeting tourists, like thefts of coolers or car break-ins. He said he didn’t see any specific patterns.

“We would go with one week at relatively normal to low activity levels, and the next week it would be barn busters,” Robl said.

Homer’s city campgrounds saw revenues up $5,000 through August compared to 2015, said Angie Ottesen, parks maintenance coordinator. June was up from last year. Mariner Park is the most popular campground on the Spit. Most campers come from Alaska. Lower-48 campers tend to start arriving in late June and early July; those from foreign countries come later in the season, she said.

The Homer Farmers Market has grown to the point that at the opening of the market at 10 a.m. Saturday people line up to buy produce, local crafts and food. Market director Robbi Mixon said credit-card sales of market coins went up 10 to 15 percent over 2015. Travelers use credit cards to buy market coins for purchase of produce from vendors who don’t take credit cards.

The parking lot also filled up in the first few hours of the Saturday market.

Mixon said the Homer Farmers Market fits in with a national trend of markets becoming a cultural attraction for visitors.

“You go for the culture and the food you see there,” she said.

Although people go to listen to music and visit, Mixon said in Homer that’s not causing a negative trend some have observed, where that’s all a market becomes.

“The Homer Farmers Market is a place to hang out for sure, but people are hanging out to buy items,” she said.

Water taxi use also has gone up. Mako’s Water Taxi saw an increase of about 15 percent, said Leah Westfall.

“It’s been pretty busy — a lot of people,” she said.

Ashore Water Taxi owner and operator Dave Lyon compared the boat transportation business to setting a fishing net.

“On any one day you might think it was great,” he said.

On other days business might be down, though. It’s all how it adds up in the end. Lyon said some people were more optimistic about the season than it turned out to be.

“A lot of folks thought it was going to be great,” he said. “It’s not down, but we certainly didn’t have an uptick in business.”

One bright spot was more walk-ins, Lyon said. Like other businesses, he saw lots of foreigners with more Europeans than usual in the beginning of the season. Midwesterners also proved to be a steady group of Lower 48 visitors.

Downtown, business also did well.

“It’s been a good season. You can tell it’s been a steady flow of people,” said Joel Slade, owner of the Art Shop Gallery.

Slade noticed one slight downturn: people are being more cautious about big purchases. In past years, people might have selected three or four items to buy and then buy them all. This year, if they’re deciding between a few items, they buy just one, she said.

Alaskans tend to visit at the beginning or end of the season, but this year she saw more locals visiting in the middle of the season. July was definitely her busiest month. Sales dropped in early August and then picked up after the weather got nice again.

At the Classic Cook on Pioneer Avenue for its first tourist season, things went well, said owner Janie Buncak.

“It’s more Alaska tourists than out-of-state tourists,” she said.

August was slightly less busy than July. Cruise-ship passengers tended not to spend as much, she said. Foreigners renting motorhomes tend to stay longer and spend more, she said. She has seen visitors from Europe, Great Britain, Argentina, Mexico, Japan, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia.

“Homer’s a destination for people out of state, out of the country,” Buncak said. “People who live here for a long time tend to forget that.”

Also on Pioneer Avenue, Homer’s Jeans saw a strong summer, said owner Leslie Mastick.

“It could always be busier,” she said. “It hasn’t been crazy buy. It’s been kind of steady.”

The warm summer in June and July saw a change in buying habits, Mastick noted.

“We’ve been selling quite a few summer clothes,” she said. “Sandals went really well.”

Even the bookstore had positive sales, a place which is not necessarily people’s first pick to go when the sun is out. Lee Post at the Homer Bookstore said that the store did better than last summer, especially with the rainy weather in the last few weeks.

“It was a little better than last summer and for a bookstore anything going up instead of down is doing amazingly well,” Post said. “It’s been real busy the last few weeks with all this rain we’ve had. With the sunny spells, those are the last thing a bookstore needs for business.”

The new addition to the Harry Potter series, the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, also brought business to the bookstore — much more than employees expected.

“We had to order it four times. We weren’t sure how it was going to do because it was in the format of a play but kids grabbed onto it. Younger kids, older kids, and grown ups reading it when they were kids,” Post said. “We only had a handful of people that had pre-signed up for it before it came, which opposed to the last book in the series we had about 400 people, so we didn’t do a party, but it was several rounds of ordering the books before we could put any out for sale because it was spoken for before it got here, after the first sale day.”

The bookstore also saw their share of tourists, in addition to locals, browsing for a good read.

“We had a whole family here from Dubai that was looking for books. We had a tour group from China that came down and that was something we thought was unusual and different. Fair number of European people, but that’s not unusual,” Post said. “We enjoy it when we get people in that are booky and from places that we know nothing about. Its fun to talk to them.”

In the bicycle rental business, fat tire bikes offered a new way to see Homer and proved a success.

“Bikes were good. Fat tire bikes were very good, ” said Bob Schmutzler, co-owner of Homer Saw and Cycle with Claire Waxman. “Bike rentals were probably one of our best years.”

Cycle Logical also saw good bike rentals out of its shop on the Spit.

“It’s always hit or miss. It depends on who’s in town and what the weather’s doing,” said owner Derek Reynolds. “The fat bikes were definitely a curiosity to a lot of people. It’s a unique opportunity in Homer to hop on the beach and check it out.”

Ecotourism also did well. At the Center for Alaskans Coastal Studies, overnight stays at its Peterson Bay Field Station were up, said CACS executive director Beth Trowbridge. Events like its dock tidepooling tours on the Spit also did well.

“I think we’re feeling positive about how the summer was as far as the tourism traffic,” Trowbridge said.

She also noticed tourist traffic picking up earlier, with visits happening sooner in June, enough so that CACS held its staff training a week earlier.

“We used to have this almost two-week lull in the beginning of June,” she said.

Visits dropped off in mid-August, though.

“Aug. 12 it was like ‘turn the lights out,’” she said.

The Pratt Museum saw about 300 more visitors this summer compared to 2015, with 14,000 from June through August, said Kim Wylde, office manager.

“August was a big month for us despite there being only one cruise ship visit,” she said.

A two-week stretch of rain might have help, Wylde said.

“We were having visitor counts similar to what we have on a cruise ship day — 160 visitors in one day,” she said.

The Pratt also saw a lot of small, organized tour groups, she said. She didn’t know where all the tours came from, though one group was organized out of Colorado.

Businesses noted customers from the Lower 48 — including Michigan, Washington, Louisiana, California, Minnesota and Wisconsin — as well as international visitors from Germany, Norway, Iceland, South America, China, Italy, France, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and Dubai.

Asia Freeman of Bunnell Street Arts Center overhead many tourists talking about how they didn’t want Homer to change much, except it could use more seating.

“We need more benches to sit while waiting for buses and things. I think things like way finding signage and benches will help people,” Freeman said.

Of course, tourists have to eat and many chose to grab a bite at Homer restaurants both on and off the Spit, all of which reported consistent, if not outstanding, business throughout the summer months. Some restaurants, such as Cosmic Kitchen reported steady sales with locals making up a large part of their sale, while others saw tourists from around the world.

“We had a great year, all year. It started early and we saw tourists early … March, April, May”, said Fat Olives owner Steve (Tiny) Nolan. “Summer months its better than normal. Usually when it was sunny its not that busy, but even when it was sunny we had more people. I think there were a lot of people around, Homer’s on the map for people.”

Other restaurants in town saw similar numbers of patrons show up with stopping, even after the usual dip in August. While July was still the peak month for most, August business stayed steadily busy. AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse and Tavern manager Darrel Oliver said it seemed like the whole town was busier all summer.

“It’s the best ever. I think the whole town had a great season. Everybody seemed like they were just busier than heck and that goes for us as well,” Oliver said. “July is always crazy. It’s automatically crazy, but August usually takes a dip, just slight but noticeable. But this year July just kept going until about August 27th.”

AJ’s owner Adrienne Sweeney also owns the Driftwood Inn, the Driftwood RV Park and several lodges in Old Town. Most of the inn’s visitors, about 60 percent, come from elsewhere in Alaska. At the lodges, a popular spot for big events like weddings, nuptials were about the same this year. Sweeney saw an increase in another event, though: family reunions.

“That’s a new thing for us where you have a family of 17 to 25 who want to stay together,” she said.

With state and other government budget cuts, Sweeney saw one downturn from government agencies cancelling workshops or meetings.

Out on the Spit, restaurants were singing the same tune. La Baleine opened May 8 and closed on Sept. 4, and on the busiest days the little cafe served hundreds of people.

“We were definitely busier, probably 30 percent busier than last year, Dixon said. “On a busy day we do over 240 tickets I would say, and most of those are multiple people.“

Little Mermaid also saw steady business throughout the season and noticed a lot of visitors from other places in Alaska, said owner Kathy Vogel.

“I would say it’s been more consistently busy (than last year). Its hard to gauge for us because we’re so small, we max out so quick,” Vogel said. “We have a lot of European visitors this year and a lot of Alaska visitors. They would probably rival the amount of people I had in here.”

At Salty Girl’s on the Spit, co-owner Mary Huff described business in one word.

“Excellent,” she said.

Huff said the busy season seems to have shifted where early June is slow and later in August is busier.

Fishing charters reported mixed business, however. Sherry Kalander at Captain B’s Alaskan C’s Adventures reported that the fishing regulations limiting halibut fishing on charters has negatively affected their business.

“Our business is down 40 percent by the 35 percent down we were last year, Kalandar said. “People can’t afford to come down here to fish for 12 fish. There’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve fought and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

However, Rick Zielinkski, owner of Silver Fox Charters, reported that while the no fishing on Wednesdays and the four annual fish limit has hurt business a little, overall their season went well.

“I’d say its up a little from previous years. It seems like the peak season last a little bit longer,” Zielinski said. “No fishing Wednesday, definitely hurt a little bit and the four fish annual limit definitely hurt a little bit. We are working around it best we can. We’ve got a handful of bigger groups that used to come for five or six days that don’t come anymore which is kind of a bummer; people that have been coming for years.”

New charter guide Kristen Churchill of Nauti C’s said her first summer went well. She started out offering half-day trips and shifted to full-day trips.

“The season went really well,” she said.

As one of the few female guides in the male-dominated charter business, Churchill said the season turned out well.

“It was really hard to break into as a female captain, but I did it,” she said. “I’m still learning. I’ve been really happy with this summer.”

As a woman captain she got a lot of female anglers. Other captains in the fleet were supportive and helped her out. She did run into some resistance from big, burly fishermen surprised to see a woman captain and suspicious that she would be a good guide.

“But then you prove them wrong,” Churchill said.

While there may have been more visiting Homer than usual, Shelly Erickson at Homer Tours noted that tourists overall were more careful with their money than previous years. She saw a lot more visitors who were discriminating about where to spend than previous years, and fewer people coming back on the trolley with lots of bags. Erickson said she can often tell how the economy is doing based on how the tourists on her trolley spend their money.

“I work the cruise ships, so its thousands of people,” Erickson said. “It seems like every year there’s always a shift in the market and what it does because of what’s happening the economy, amount of travelers, and how much they’re willing to spend their money. … . I thought last year was sluggish from before but this seemed even more sluggish with how they spend their money. They are way more thrifty. But where they choose to spend their money, then they freely spend it.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

Anna Frost can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com.


Fall Hours at the Visitor Center

The Visitor Center is extending its hours through September to meet increased demand, staying open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

“Staying open will ensure that referrals to local businesses are continuing to maximize revenue opportunities during September,” said HCOC marketing and events coordinator Bridget Maryott.