The word on the street at the end of Homer’s traditional summer tourist season is “incredible” — incredible business and incredible weather.
“Everybody I’ve talked to — this is not like pie in the sky — charter operators, accommodations, Safeway, retail outlets, Ulmer’s, they all said it was incredible,” said Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center Executive Director Jim Lavrakas. “After Memorial Day, even up until a week ago, it was just as busy as ever — busier than they’ve ever been.”
The only dark cloud in the tourist season came from halibut charter operators who once ran two, half-day trips a day. New rules for charter captains restricted trips to one a day. That obviously cut business in half.
“All of our fishing expenses go on and the income gets cut in half. You have to see what gets left,” said Jack Montgomery, owner of Rainbow Tours. Rainbow has two boats and cut its trips this season, one boat in the morning and one in the evening.
Lavrakas said the cut in half-day charters also cut the number of seats and trips available in the charter fleet. The chamber had lots of visitors who came in and said they couldn’t find halibut charters, he said.
“On some level that’s good, because everybody’s booked, but on another level we’re not supplying the seats,” he said.
Charter captains who offered full-day or overnight two-day trips did well, though. Rob Hyslip of Big Bear Charters said business was up from previous years. Even August, traditionally a slower month, was good.
“We had double bookings all through August,” he said.
With his wife, Cherise, the Hyslips also run a gift shop and accommodations at their Bear Country Fishing Village Boardwalk. Cherise Hyslip said business also was up at the gift shop.
At other charter companies, business also was good. David Bayes, owner of Deep Strike Sportfishing and president of the Alaska Charter Association, said clients were mostly philosophical about the Catch Sharing Plan rules that restricted charter-guided halibut fishermen to one fish of any size and one fish under 29 inches.
“Overall, people seemed to take it pretty well. Most of the people who came were from out of state and didn’t understand there was going to be a new limit,” he said.
The lower limit resulted in a lower percentage of Alaskans fishing, most of them looking to fill freezers, Bayes said. That’s something Lavrakas noticed, too.
“I think for a lot of people who want to experience fishing or fishing in Homer didn’t have a problem,” he said. “I think people into meat fishing had a problem, especially Alaskans.”
Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby Tickets seem to be down a bit from last year, Lavrakas said, with 13,000 tickets sold compared to 15,000 in 2013. The derby still has two weeks to go, though.
Most fishing was excellent. Bayes said feeder king salmon fishing in 2014 was one of the best years ever. Lingcod was good, Hyslip said. But the really bright spot was an awesome silver salmon run at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon that started in late July and kept slamming into mid August.
At the Sports Shed at the boardwalk across from the fishing hole, owner Tabor Ashmunt said they saw strong sales in Vibrax fishing lures and herring. Like others, he mentioned tourists from Europe and Great Britain, but he also saw a new trend this year: tourists from China.
“Generally, everything was pretty positive. We had pretty good weather this year — not a whole lot of blow-off days,” he said. “I think we lucked out pretty well this year. No forest fires, no volcanoes.”
The good weather put people in a great mood, said Adrienne Sweeney, owner of the Driftwood Inn, the Driftwood RV Park, AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse and some rental lodges.
“People were just friendly. I think the weather helped with that,” she said. “When you have great weather, you have happy people.”
Bayes said he usually plans for three weather days a month when he’ll have to cancel trips. This year he only had three weather days total, including high seas on Tuesday that kept the charter fleet in port.
Water taxi operators also reported good business.
“I think everything is up from last year, especially with the European tourists,” said Dave Lyon, owner of Ashore Water Taxi.
Lyon said he thought the strength of the Euro over the dollar and the over-the-pole flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, helped. Ashore Water Taxi also saw a boost in a new line: renting stand-up paddle, or SUP, surfboards. Lyon has seven boards he rents as well as wetsuits. People are renting them to use off the Homer Spit, in Mud Bay, in Halibut Cove and even in the harbor.
“We’ve been turning people away,” he said of SUP rentals.
Another bright spot was taking people across the bay for berry picking.
“The berry picking was off the hook this year,” Lyon said. “They’re just hanging like clusters of grapes, that’s how they were described to me.”
Mako Haggerty of Mako’s Water Taxi also said business was good. He’s been taking a lot of people to Kachemak Bay State Park.
“We always get visitors from Outside, but this year we seemed to have a lot of Alaskans enjoying our parks,” Haggerty said.
Lyon said his “bread and butter” run in the state park is the Glacier Lake trail, a loop from Glacier Spit to the lake and glacier and then over the Saddle Trail for a pickup. Haggerty said clients also have been asking for more challenging hikes, like Sadie Knob or Grace Ridge.
“We’ve actually had more people climbing Poot’s Peak this year than I can remember,” he said.
Floatplane tours also have been popular, Haggerty said. Mako’s works with floatplane companies to either do air tours or combined air and water tours, where the plane lands on a permitted lake in the state park and the client walks to tidewater for a water taxi pickup.
Gift shops also did well. Homer Sapiens, a gift shop featuring locally made gifts, is near the end of a row of gift shops ending at Fish Dock Road. Owner Kammi Matson said business keeps getting better and better. A new shop run by Lu Lovelace went up next door, Matson noted.
Business also has been good at gift shops like Salty Girls next to the Salty Dawg Saloon and High Tide Arts on the Coal Point Trading Company boardwalk.
“July was extremely good,” said Diane Svymbersky, co-owner of Salty Girls with Mary Huff. “The sunshine is like, yeah.”
On Labor Day, Salty Girls got a steady stream of customers form the M/V Amsterdam, its last visit to Homer for the season. High Tide Arts, which has an art shop and a clothing shop in two buildings, also got some cruise ship customers.
“We had a good season,” owner Leslie Klaar said.
In the clothing shop, High Tide added some new lines, like Salmon Sisters, clothing by the Laukitis sisters of Homer, Octopus Ink, Tasselled Tags and Scissorkick. The clothing features original, Alaska-themed designs like Scissorkick’s old fisherman logo holding his thumb and fingers in the shape of Alaska.
Tourist businesses credit not just an awesome, sunny summer, but an uptick in the economy for an increase in business.
“I would probably say it’s an indication of the economy — things are good in the national economy,” Haggerty said.
That’s something Lavrakas noted.
“I think people from outside the state felt it was a better climate for them to come here as far as what their money could buy and how much money they can spend,” he said.
The chamber does online surveys about things like how much money people put aside to spend in Homer. Lavrakas said he was surprised at how much people said they put aside — $1,500 to $2,000.
“That’s pretty encouraging,” he said.
Water taxi operators and charter captains will stay running through mid- or late September, so for some the season keeps going. Lavrakas said a conversation he had with Diane Hively, the general manager of the Beluga Lake Lodge, pretty much sums up the season.
“Diane there let out a big sigh and a ‘whoof’ and said, ‘It’s been incredible,’” he said.