Tourism rebounds

Despite 9-11 fears, tourism grew this year in Southeast

Posted: Monday, September 09, 2002

Tourists waited until the last minute, but they still came to Juneau this summer.

"It took people a long time to get past Sept. 11 and motivated to travel again," said Kirby Day, director of shoreside operations for Princess Cruises and Tours.

Reservations for cruise ships, bed-and-breakfasts, hotels and tours all lagged months behind before the summer tourism season started. Many in the tourism industry wondered how the economic downturn and fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would change the season. Now as the season nears an end, they say the boats and buildings filled up and business was better than originally was expected.

Juneau actually saw more cruise ship passengers this summer than last. The nine cruise lines in the North West CruiseShip Association carried about 4 percent more passengers up the Inside Passage through the end of August than the year before, said Executive Director John Hansen. In 2001's season, about 690,650 passengers came to Juneau, according to the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The increase is small compared to the 10 to 14 percent annual increases Alaska cruises saw in the early to mid-1990s, but the Alaska market plateaued several years ago, Hansen said.

"The Alaska market is, as we see it, a pretty mature market," Hansen said. "There was a lot of growth over a number of years and I don't think we're going to see that kind of growth again."

The increase this year came, at least in part, from cruise lines moving ships to the Alaska route after Sept. 11, Hansen said. Seabourn Cruise Line hadn't sailed to Alaska in five years, and its clientele jumped at the chance to go somewhere new, said Bruce Good, public relations director for the luxury cruise line.

"Like everybody else we hit a bump at Sept. 11, but within six weeks we were back up to selling as much as we were before Sept. 11," Good said.

It didn't hurt that like most cruise lines, Seabourn came out with aggressive pricing after Sept. 11. The Boat Company, which has three boats that carry between 12 and 24 passengers, also discounted its Alaska cruises heavily.

"I've talked to other cruise companies and they said the same thing, that they had to do more marketing, and some pretty special deals, but people did come around in June," said reservations manager Kathy Nissley.

Most years the ship reservations fill up in December and January, but this year people were waiting until spring to commit to summer vacations. Reservations still are running a little slow for next summer, Nissley said. Normally by now the next season would be about 80 percent booked, but so far she has half that.

With the discounts, cruise lines were running full ships all summer, but making less money. The Boat Company had to tighten its budget, including moving from a downtown Seattle office space to a cheaper warehouse in an outlying district.

"It was one of the hardest seasons that we've ever had and one of the lightest, but we did recoup," Nissley said. "Financially it was not great. We've really cut back a lot."

Princess Cruises also found ways to cut costs, both onboard and on shore, in preparation for a lower-revenue season, Day said.

"We tried to make sure that tour operators that work with us were still cautious, because full ships don't necessarily mean the same kind of spending you have in a normal year," Day said. "And that's for a lot of reasons. People lost money after Sept. 11 and the stock market hasn't been very good."

Downtown merchants noticed the changes in spending. Though the streets were flooded with visitors, they were more likely to buy T-shirts and trinkets than art.

"Nothing really has changed much. There's more visitors with a little less purchasing power," said Colleen Kennedy, owner of Rainsong Gallery. "It's probably a little more difficult on the higher end places like mine, and a little better for the lower end shops."

Galligaskins gift shop owner Rod Swope noticed the same trends in spending, but said it was much better than some of the dire predictions after Sept. 11.

"Overall, based on what we were thinking and hearing last year in preseason, I think it turned out to be a good season for businesses," Swope said. "I think everyone was pretty concerned and I think it turned out just fine."

While the numbers of cruise visitors stayed high this summer, fewer people arrived by air, said Lorene Kappler, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nonprofit organization that works to increase independent travel to the capital. The number of passengers landing in Juneau was down 16 percent in June and 9 percent in July, Kappler said.

More visitors came by ferry though. From May to August 9,783 passengers took the ferry from Bellingham, about 230 more than the previous year, said Tim Homan, a state research analyst.

The independent travelers who did come weren't planning far in advance. All summer Adventure Bound Alaska, a Juneau-based company that gives small boat tours up Tracy Arm, rarely knew how it would fill a tour more than a few weeks in advance.

"More of my reservations have been short-term ones where they call me a week before they leave home or they call me the first day they're here," said owner Winona Weber.

But the last-minute reservations kept coming. Adventure Bound added a boat this summer and was able to run it full many days in July and August, in spite of rainy weather, Weber said. The most obvious change she noticed in her clientele was a lack of visitors from Australia. The few who came said the strong U.S. dollar, which made everything cost them about twice as much, was deterring trips to the United States.

Adventures Afloat, which takes up to 12 people at a time on tours of the Inside Passage on a 106-foot boat, also saw a drop in the number of foreign travelers, said agent Erin Ryder. They still had a better season than expected,

"We didn't really know what to expect, but we had very few advance bookings," Ryder said. "Almost all of our bookings this summer were like a week or two prior to when they wanted to go."

Lodgings also were getting reservations only a few weeks in advance.

"In the past we've gotten most of our bookings, the lion's share, by January really," said Philip Dennis, owner of Alaska Wolf House bed-and-breakfast. "This year we were looking at a very empty ledger in April and May."

Dennis said business stayed down about 20 percent for the season, which he mostly attributed to the lack of foreign independent travelers who prefer staying in bed-and-breakfasts.

The hotel occupancy rate also was down in the beginning of the summer, but by the end of July it was surpassing the previous year, Kappler said.

"It started out to be a pretty weak summer and has actually grown to meet and be better than last year," Kappler said.

Independent travelers and fishermen filled the Juneau Airport Travelodge in July and August, said general manager Susan Bowman. But everyone was trying to save money.

"People are definitely dickering on price with you," Bowman said. "They're hard sells out there."

For 2003, most people were predicting a return to normal. Seabourn cruises plans to take its ship back to the Mediterranean while Princess Cruises Lines will bring in three new ships.

"I think we'll bounce back," said B-and-B owner Dennis, "and I'm optimistic that people are going to want to come to Alaska for the reason that this is where life in its most innocent forms are to be experienced."

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