Tourist season a mixed bag: sales tax revenues show no consistency

Posted: Friday, December 04, 2009

The tourists arrived, but did they spend?

For some businesses the cruise ship season turned out to be better than expected. For others, it was a disaster.

City sales tax revenues reported this week show a 13 to 14 percent decline compared to last season in spending among tourists through the end of August. But city Finance Director Craig Duncan said results were inconsistent across all categories and he couldn't pin-point any spending trends in the sector.

Some merchants were not down at all but others in the same category were down as much as 30 percent. "It was inconsistent across the board," he said.

Cruise ships carried about 2 percent fewer passengers to Juneau this summer compared to last, according to preliminary numbers provided by the state. That's a small decline considering the economic climate, but tour operators said travelers seemed to have less money to spend.

While ticket sales for the Mt. Roberts Tramway were up 9 percent, Temsco Helicopters' tours were down 26 percent.

The more price-conscious passengers attracted by lower cruise fares made it difficult to sell high-end tours, said Temsco's Tim McDonnell, vice president of marketing and tours.

Some lines advertised seven-day Alaska cruises for a couple hundred dollars.

"It became quite apparent I could spend seven days on a cruise in Alaska for the cost of a dog sled tour in Juneau," McDonnell said.

Slim pockets might have helped business at the tram, where an all-day pass costs $27, said General Manager George Reifenstein. The spectacular weather likely helped too, he added.

Business also was up at Orca Enterprises, which sold about 5 percent more whale watching tours this year over last.

"Helicopters are quite expensive and we're $100; people can afford that better," said Senior Capt. Larry Dupler.

Visitation was up by just more than 2 percent at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Yet fewer people paid the entry fee and just enjoyed the surrounding area, which is free, spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.

Not all of the low-cost activities in Juneau were busier this year.

Visitation was down 9 percent at the Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery, which charges $3.25 for adult admission. The nonprofit was pleased with the numbers, considering some operators reported declines three times that, Tourism and Education Manager Emily Krogstad said.

McDonnell said Temsco hired fewer people this season and will cut the staff size even further next summer. Having just returned from a cruise industry meeting in Seattle this week, he said he doesn't predict a turn-around for his business in the near future.

"It doesn't look very promising to me," he said.

The city expects 875,000 passengers in 2010, a 15-percent decline from this season, according to Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau president Lorene Palmer.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or

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