The once-common sight of a meandering, RV-driving summer tourist is becoming more of a rarity in Alaska, according to a new survey of visitors.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the survey, dubbed the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program, is commissioned by the Alaska Department of Commerce every five years. The 2011 survey was released last week.
Border crossings at the Top of the World Highway, the Alaska Highway and the Haines Highway slipped a combined 26% from 2006 to 2011, according to the comprehensive study. The only border crossing to challenge the trend was the Klondike Highway between Skagway and Whitehorse, which saw a 17% bump in traffic.
Of an estimated 1.56 million out-of-state visitors, only 69,300 were highway and ferry visitors — a dip of 18% since 2006. Overall, the money they spent fell from $111 million to $71 million between 2006 and 2011, according to the study.
Heather Haugland, who is the project manager of the survey conducted by the McDowell Group, said the drop in road traffic disproportionately affects communities in the Interior, which rely more on highway visitors.
“Certainly, Fairbanks has been a victim of that (shift),” Haugland said.
Rising gas prices are part of the reason for the dip in road travelers, tourism officials say, but time also appears to be an issue. Even among retirees, fewer people have a month to spend on a leisurely drive to Alaska and back.
“Americans have a time deficit, even retirees,” said Deb Hickok, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The reality is, the consumer is changing.”
Scott Reisland, the owner of Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, said he’s seen the effects of those changes on his business, and that it stretches back much longer than 2006.
RV traffic has plummeted so much in the past decade that he closed down a 98-space park near Denali National Park at the end of last summer. Only a second RV park he owns, with just 24 spaces, will reopen.
“There’s a lack of long-term time to go on a vacation in Alaska,” he said. “It’s a long-haul destination, and people are staying closer to home.”
What does Hickok make of the bigger picture? It’s hard to say, she admits.
Since the number of visitors peaked in 2006, the industry has gone through unprecedented times. The global recession saw Alaska visitor numbers plummet in 2009, and those numbers have only gradually recovered.
Since visitors to Alaska peaked at about 1.7 million in both 2007 and 2008, they’ve slipped down to about 1.56 million in 2011. Those declines have stopped for the first time since the recession, however, with a 1.6% increase last summer from 2010.
Hickok said she’s eager to see what an upcoming report on winter tourism reveals. Although the four-month summer visitor season brings about 70% of visitors to the state, there are indications that Alaska is making big gains as a winter destination.
“For winter, we’ve seen steady growth even through this recession — that’s our sense of it,” Hickok said.
A dozen white motorhomes clogged Alaska’s Kenai Holiday gas station parking lot Monday morning (June 22), giving locals a rare glimpse at the kind of caravan that has been conspicuously missing from the summertime scene so far this year.
“Our visitation is down about 20% for June,” said Natasha Ala, executive director of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Monday.
Ala said the center doesn’t keep track of recreational vehicle traffic specifically, but that she doesn’t doubt that vehicle traffic is way down this season, according to Kenai Peninsula Online.
“We’re definitely seeing less people,” she said.
A couple blocks away from the center, Beluga Lookout RV Park owner Jerry Dunn said business isn’t booming.
“It’s been off to a slow start,” he said.
The caravan pulling out of Holiday earlier in the morning had stayed at his park the night before, giving business a much-needed boost. The caravan participants hailed from Germany, and Dunn said many of his guests this summer are foreign nationals.
“We get them from all over the world,” he said.
Dunn said his business is also heavily reliant on retirees, many of whom have seen their stock portfolios and retirement accounts depleted by the economic downturn.
“This year it seems like business if off because a lot of people lost money in their retirement accounts,” he said.
The downward trend in vehicle traffic is nothing new. According to the state’s Office of Economic Development, highway visitors to Alaska have declined in each of the past three years, including a 6.8% drop from 2007 to 2008.
From the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Tok, the first town of any size for visitors entering Alaska via the Alaska Highway, manager Lisa Conrad said she can’t yet say whether 2009 will be another down year for border crossings. She said things seem slow, but because of a bureaucratic snafu the state has yet to see any numbers for this summer.
“We have not been able to get the border statistics,” she said.
Conrad said the Department of Homeland Security is in charge of the data, and the state has been unable to get the feds to pass the numbers on.
“All we can do is sit and wait,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s office of public affairs in Washington, D.C., said she was unaware of any delay in getting border crossing numbers out, but was unable to provide any figures by the close of business Monday.
Even without hard numbers, Conrad said things in Tok seem to be slow.
“Just talking to the local businesses, it seems like it’s been down,” she said.
With out-of-state visitors electing not to travel as much, local tourism marketers have had to get creative in trying to attract folks to the Kenai Peninsula, which juts southerly from Anchorage into the Gulf of Alaska. Natasha Ala said one way Kenai has been trying to get more visitors is by trying to entice Alaska residents to take what she called “stay-cations.”
“In tough times, the strategy is to beef up the marketing efforts that we do,” she said.
That includes marketing the Kenai Peninsula to places like the interior of the state.
“We’re kind of an exotic destination for people from Fairbanks,” she said.
Although the peninsula’s roads are far from clogged with recreational vehicles, the poor economy hasn’t stopped everyone from heading north. Visiting Kenai with his wife and another couple from Arkansas, retired Sears mechanic Jerry Russell said the group figured seeing Alaska on wheels would be more fun than flying up.
“We just wanted to see the country,” he said.
Thus far, Russell said the trip has been worth every cent.
“It’s really been an enjoyable trip,” he said.
He’s put more than 5,000 miles on his motorhome, with “at least” another 5,000 left to go. And while many penny-pinching travelers may have elected to stay home this year, Russell said he’s in no hurry to get back.
“When the money runs out we’ll go home,” he said.