By Jenny Neyman
William and Eunice Martens had plenty of time over Memorial Day weekend to work on the campground host area they’ve been adding to during their six summers at Soldotna’s Centennial Park.
The campground was down about 20 percent to 25 percent, William Martens said Monday, as he weeded a flower bed with a rebuilt shovel, next to a fence they constructed with scraps from the campground’s woodshed. Eunice had been at work getting their summer vegetable garden planted, housed in an old freezer that quit working.
Summers at Centennial can leave little leisure time for hosts’ summer home-improvement projects, as the in-town campground is usually quite popular with motorhomes and tent campers from around Alaska, the Lower 48 and beyond.
But not so far this year. The Yuma, Ariz., hosts have been at Centennial since May 15, and they haven’t had much traffic since then, Martens said. By late Monday afternoon, the spike in visitors that came over the holiday weekend had mostly cleared out.
“We had some Anchorage traffic, some Lower 48ers in here, and of course a lot of local folks,” Martens said. “I think things will pick up for Centennial, it will be a good year. You can never guess what people will do, but the way it looks to me, I think it will be a pretty busy year.”
Central peninsula businesses that rely on summer tourism hope Martens is right, although early indicators point to this being a slower-than-usual summer for the visitor industry, owing primarily to the economic recession.
Michelle Glaves, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, said she’s heard that advanced bookings are down among local tourism operators.
“Pretty much across the board, from guides to B and Bs all the way down to canoe trips,” she said.
Loni Galloway, with Escape for Two Bed and Breakfast off Tote Road south of Soldotna, said her bookings are down about 20 percent to 30 percent so far this year. Likewise, Delora Garcia, with Tanglewood Bed and Breakfast beside Cunningham Park on Beaver Loop Road, rated her bookings as medium.
“The shoulder seasons are kind of slow, and I think a lot of people are waiting to book until the last minute. The cancellations I have had are because, ‘We don’t even know if we’re going to have a job and we have to cancel this.’ But they may still book. Who knows? I hope so,” Galloway said.
The Kenai Peninsula tourism industry could benefit from several factors this summer. Fuel prices are down compared to last summer, which could boost RV traffic. The Martens, who drive to Soldotna from Arizona every year, said that coming through Tok, they paid 30 percent to 35 percent less for fuel this year than they did last year.
While economic concerns may cut out vacations altogether from some, for others it could prompt trips closer to home. For Alaska, that could mean a decrease in Lower 48 visitors, but the Kenai Peninsula could make up at least some of the difference with instate travel.
“If you’re coming from Anchorage and the diesel price is $3.54, it’s getting to be kind of a spendy trip just for a weekend or something,” Martens said. “I think people do camp closer to home. But if they’re going to be gone an extended time, they spend the dollars to go the extra miles.”
As summer progresses, people who have been holding off on making reservations may find they still have the money to take a vacation.
“There’s always the last-minute trips. A lot of people wait until the last minute, they don’t realize June, July and August get crazy and sometimes they don’t make the reservations because they figure everybody has availability, which they don’t usually in July. I think we’re one of the few states that are like that. I have some open spots, and there are other people who do. Some do, some don’t,” Galloway said.
Repeat customers could also be a saving grace this year. Galloway said she looks forward to the return of her past clients, and Garcia said repeat customers are a solid 50 percent of her business.
“I love my customers. I look forward to them so much. Sometimes it’s two to three years before they show up, sometimes they come every year,” Garcia said.
In slow years, being proactive is especially important, Garcia said. She’s had success with advertising and also credits being a member of the Kenai Peninsula Bed and Breakfast Association with helping her bookings.
“We have a lot of advertising out there. You have to have it for a while before it makes a difference,” Garcia said.
“There’s not much marketing you can do at this point to encourage people outside to come up this summer, it’s kind of late,” Glaves said. “Now people are turning to a lot stronger instate marketing this summer to try to attract people to Kenai Peninsula. People will have to be a little more flexible in taking last-minute bookings and walk-ups.”
And it’s still early. Glaves said the visitors center has had about the same number of inquiries from possible visitors as in past years, and the center’s walk-up traffic has been steady, if not heavy.
“Our numbers as far as inquiries are the same as they were last year, and the number of early visitors we’ve had is about the same as it’s been last year, so that’s a good indication. I don’t think it’s going to continue that way, but that’s a good thing,” Glaves said.
Plus, the Kenai Peninsula’s primary reason for visiting has yet to kick in. Once the fish get to town, fishermen usually follow.
“When the fish are running, it doesn’t make any difference. Nothing makes any difference. We have to find a rock to hide people under,” Martens said.