Independent travelers getting rarer

Businesses catering to nonpackaged tourists are ailing

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

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 - 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 those 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, President and CEO Gary Droubay told the Empire on Tuesday.

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 B&B 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 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.

"It's a very high overhead business to run a boat to begin with," Bethers said. "And after it's all said and done, it's a very fine margin you're working on. If you're not running real hard and heavy, it's better to leave off totally."

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

"A lot of the independent travel people have discovered that it's cheaper to travel by cruise ship," said Georgia Sepel, owner of Sepel Hollow Bed and Breakfast. "Most people say, 'Wow, this is a boom town for tourism.' It is a boom town for tourism for those who are in mega-corporations. Small businesses have a hard time competing with mega-corporations."

Figures from the Alaska Visitor's Statistics Program did show an increase in independent-package travelers, said DCED's McConkie. However, "indie-package" visitors, who pay separately for trip elements such as transportation and tours, can describe both cruise ship passengers and general independent travelers.

Totals jumped from 13 percent in 1993 to 27 percent in 2001, but because the category is so broad it's hard to make a conclusive statement about what that growth means, McConkie said.

Overall, while Alaska's tourism numbers are increasing, the rate of increase is declining, she added.

"The only source of increase right now is cruise travel. We have an increase in cruise ship visitors, we have a slight increases in domestic air travel, but that increase ... is pretty much due to the cruise industry," McConkie said.

Businesses that depend on independent travelers could look to some bright spots in the summer forecast. Air travel to Alaska for the first four months of 2002 was down only slightly from travel during those same months in 2001. In general, the numbers were "very, very similar," Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Walsh said.

Additionally, a number of local businesses said their summers looked solid. Pearson's Pond Luxury Inn and Spa expanded last year, adding two luxury apartments, said innkeeper Rebecca Garcia. It now rents five rooms, and bookings have gone quickly.

"I think it was a little bit of a slow start," Garcia said. "(But) all the peak periods, everything we'd be expecting to fill up, is booking up really quickly. We've had to find alternate accommodations for some folks."

Winona Weber, who co-owns Adventure Bound Alaska with her husband, Steve, agreed. Their company offers a full-day cruise to the Tracy Arm fjord, and gets most of its business from independent travelers.

"It's up from last year," she said of summer prospects. "May last year was poor. It was slow, but this year it's looking pretty good."

Advertising made all the difference for Sitka's Wild Strawberry Lodge, which books fishing and lodging packages for the summer months. Co-owner Theresa Weiser said the lodge made a concerted effort to increase business after a dismal 2001 summer season, and those efforts seem to be paying off.

"Overall it's not looking too bad," Weiser said. "The only reason it's any better than last year is because we've done some very, very serious marketing. If we hadn't gotten our butts in gear and done some hard marketing, we would be in worse shape than last year."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.



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