2013 tourist season showing promise

As Homer heads into the 2013 tourist season, it appears visitors are reacting positively to an improving economy; local charters and lodging concerns are reporting increased and earlier bookings; and many are saying it could be the best summer in several years.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Commu-nity and Economic Development’s tourism marketing program has been conducting a $5.7 million national TV ad blitz and investing heavily in magazine and online pitches.

The recession from which the national economy is slowly recovering altered the buying habits of travelers. Where previously visitors made Alaska plans in December, January and February, in recent years they’ve waited until early spring. But that appears to be changing, said Monte Davis, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.

“People with whom I’ve spoken say reservations are way up over last year,” Davis said. “Will it be a record-setter? I don’t know, but I think it could be a really good tourist season,” he said. 

That optimism is apparent among some in the lodging business.

Julie Parizek, owner of Crane’s Rest B&B, a member of the Homer Bed & Breakfast Association, confirmed the increase in earlier booking, saying that the season was “starting out more robust than any year since 2009.” 

Don Cotogna, owner of Timber Bay B&B, is treasurer of the local association, the Alaska State Bed & Breakfast Association and the Homer Chamber of Commerce. He also owns a catering business.

“Things are looking good,” he said. “Reservations are at least where they were this time last year, if not a bit more. And that’s statewide, also.”

Mike Dye, CEO of Land’s End Acquisition Corp., also sees promise in the upcoming season.

“It’s still a bit early to predict with certainty,” he said, “but demand appears to be well-rounded with out-of-state travelers, groups and businesses (conventions, meetings, etc.). That’s an indication of improvement in the economy.”

It’s the same in town. Adrienne Sweeney, owner, along with husband Alex, of EMS Investments, which operates the Driftwood Inn and A.J.’s Steakhouse, among other things, said bookings are up by at least 10 percent over this time last season and folks are booking earlier as well.

“We’re completely booked for Memorial Day weekend, and we’re booking up fast for Fourth of July, too,” she said. “Last year, people were waiting for the last minute.” She added that bookings were also up at their Driftwood Charters.

Kathy Rider, manager at Central Charters and Tours on the Homer Spit, agreed, saying, “It looks like it is going to be a good summer.” The company’s relatively new lodging operation is expecting its best summer yet, she added.

Greg Sutter, owner of Captain Greg’s Charters, said his May bookings were a bit down, but he attributes that to the weather. “Some guys are complaining about June (bookings), but I think the summer is going to be good; maybe not a banner year, but good,” he said.

Not all Homer’s annual visitors target the Lower Peninsula. They aim instead for the Kenai/Soldotna area and a chance at Kenai River salmon. But many take in Homer as a side trip. In that way, Homer-area businesses benefit when fish are plentiful in the Kenai; when they aren’t, it can “hurt us,” Davis said.

Expecting a poor Kenai king run, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game earlier this month issued restrictions. How that might affect overall visitor numbers here is not clear, but other indicators, including increased airline bookings and “through the roof” recreational vehicle reservations around the state, continue to favor an optimistic outlook for Homer, Davis said.

The average visitor to Homer spends $102 a day, Davis noted citing state figures. Roughly 10,000 stopped at the Chamber’s headquarters last year. If that many could be persuaded to spend one extra day in Homer, they’d pump an additional $1 million into the local economy over the course of a season. 

One of the biggest draws is the Homer Spit Fishing Lagoon, which has been less productive lately, primarily for lack of dredging. City Manager Walt Wrede noted the city’s commitment to the popular tourist land mark, which this year was dredged to its original depth thanks to city, state and grant funding. That should favor the survival of more stocked smolt and increase, over time, the number of returning salmon for eager anglers.

As for the tourist season in general, Wrede said that while he couldn’t point to empirical data, what he’s hearing anecdotally from members of the city council, private businesses, and the Chamber has him increasingly optimistic that the coming season will be bright.

Cruise Ship Head Tax funds from the state will help pay for continuation of a trail around the exterior of the harbor, and other money will complete the Spit Trail to Land’s End and pave the city parking lot there. A spur trail to Coal Point Park will allow visitors to view activities at the busy Fish Dock in safety. Deepwater Dock improvements (where tour ships dock) will include sweeping equipment to remove the daily deluge of seagull poop, and a covered staging area and restroom where tourists can await buses. Four new bathrooms are planned, two downtown and two on the Spit, Wrede said.

More broadly, an Alaska’s Division of Economic Development study of tourism’s impact released in February covering the May 2011-April 2012 period shows improvement over a 2010 study. For instance, Alaska’s visitor industry saw 37,800 full- and part-time jobs during the study period (up 1,600 jobs from the previous period), resulting in total labor income of $1.24 billion (up $100 million). Meanwhile, the industry generated $3.72 billion in spending, an increase of more than $310 million. Half that industry-related employment and 53 percent of that spending occurred in Southcentral Alaska, the study said.

Although total state visitors declined 1 percent, air travel jumped while cruise ship travel fell – it turns out air travelers spend more, the latest study said.