Although U.S. Customs reports that mid-season highway traffic into the Chilkat Valley is up more than 15 percent over last year, many Haines businesses are wondering where those visitors are.
Border statistics showed a 17 percent increase in U.S. citizens passing through the Dalton Cache border station last month. The number of foreign visitors increased 21 percent, and the number of vehicles entering was 24 percent higher than last July.
Despite the encouraging numbers, local visitor businesses surveyed this week said the tills haven't been ringing as often and reservations are down during the first three months of the summer tourist season.
RV park owner Fred Bretthauer said business this summer has been light. Using 2000 as a benchmark year, he said business has been down 15 percent for the season.
Bretthauer speculated an uncertain national economy and a shift in people's travel plans may have some effect. "People seem to be switching to cars as opposed to RVs. Maybe they don't have the money they once had."
After last year's downturn in the tourism industry, Bretthauer expected a banner year. At a pair of large RV shows in the Lower 48 last winter, he said he had an unprecedented show of interest in his business, which has failed to reach reality. "I wish the season would be better, but I'm really uncertain how it will turn out."
Jeff Butcher, who purchased the historic Hotel Halsingland early this year, said it's difficult for him to gauge how this tourist season is progressing.
Since its reservation system was closed along with the hotel last fall, and reservations for this year were not taken until March, Butcher says business will be significantly lower than last year's.
Butcher speculates the terrorist attacks and a weakened economy are factors as well.
And since most of his business comes from independent travelers, Butcher questioned plans to reduce ferry service to Haines and the budget cut for Alaska tourism marketing.
"The state as a whole has limited resources to compete with destinations with effective marketing - places such as Orlando and the Caribbean," he said. "And since the state did not fund a marketing plan, we're beginning to see the results."
Captain's Choice motel owner Ed Lapeyri said June and July room bookings fell 5 percent compared to last year.
He said this summer's stock market slump and a big drop in disposable income might be to blame. "A lot of people, I think, are waiting to see how the stock market is before making travel plans."
And Mountain View motel officer manager Robin Penwell said that business is not as good as last year. "It's beginning to pick up this week."
Penwell said the motel is usually booked for the state fair by March, but that's not the case this year. "It's the worst I've seen in the 10 years I've been here."
To capture more business, Penwell said she advertises and sends brochures to prospective customers every chance she gets. "You have to do anything you can to pick up the business."
Main Street retailer Marilyn Josephson says her business is up a few percentage points from last year. She said the key is giving her customers a variety of merchandise from which to choose. "It's about adjusting too. Selling lower end items that people can afford is better sometimes than trying to sell the higher priced items."
A decrease in overall business is reflected in the latest sales tax revenue report from the Haines Borough.
While not complete, the borough in May reported collecting $143,714 in sales taxes from net sales of $2,670,523. In May 2001, the borough collected $162,842 in sales taxes from net sales of $3,073,076, an average 13 percent decrease.
City manager Marco Pignalberi said it's too early to tell if the summer will show an overall loss, he hopes sales tax receipts will pick up in the final months of the season.
Michelle Glass, Haines tourism director, acknowledged the summer got off to a slow start, but "We hope to finish strong with increased visitation into August and September, with many communities experiencing a drop in rubber tire traffic."