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Tour season: Ships up, Canadians down

Article courtesy of Tom Morphet, Chilkat Valley News

Tourism-related businesses in Haines report mixed returns in 2015, with tour operators benefitting from a jump in cruise passenger numbers but retailers and lodgings reporting flat or decreased sales from independent travelers.

Curiously, according to figures compiled by the Haines Borough tourism office, the number of southbound visitors and vehicles arriving at the U.S. border station at Dalton Cache increased about 20 percent for the months of January through September, compared to the same months in 2014.

Those numbers, though, aren’t easily explained, and owners of accommodations say they haven’t seen a corresponding bump in their business.

“The road traffic is a challenge to speculate what is going on,” said tourism director Leslie Ross.

Ross’ figures show increases in road traffic every month except March, with April showing the biggest percentage jump, 46 percent, from 1,588 arrivals to 2,326. Her numbers indicate that only 2,722 of 4,869 of the increased number of travelers – or 55 percent – came during the peak months of May, June, July and August.

Ross said she thinks that April’s large increase could be attributed to skiers and increases in winter recreation. Others this week speculated the jump was at least partly attributable to scant snowfall that prompted local snowmachiners and skiers to seek out higher elevations beyond the U.S. border.

Ross said there has also been a large increase in summer numbers, in part due to a shore excursion by Alaska Mountain Guides that takes busloads of cruise passengers over the border. However, Ross’ figures also show a decline in buses southbound from June through September, just 25 compared to 34 in 2014 and 26 in 2013.

“So there are a lot of small items, adding up to account for a growth in road traffic in a year we thought we would see less due to ferries. To me it will be very interesting to look at the ferry numbers when they come out in January,” Ross said.

Heather Haugland is a senior project manager for Juneau’s McDowell Group, a research group that tracks Alaska’s industries, including tourism. Haugland said border numbers usually don’t change dramatically. “Typically, you won’t see a 20 percent fluctuation. That’s unusual.”

In a 2014 winter tourism study paid for by the Haines Borough, McDowell found summer tourism in Haines “trending downward” and local border crossings in a five-year decline, including a 19 percent drop in vehicles entering Canada from Haines between 2009 and 2013.

But Haugland said northbound traffic into Canada from Haines during the past summer months appears to be up about 14 percent, according to her numbers, so there may be something to the figures.

Tammy Piper, information coordinator of the tourism office, said possible explanations for increased numbers range from a changed methodology for counting cars and passengers to actual increases in traffic due to reduced gas prices, increased numbers of fly-in visitors and more visitors from afar. “There could be many different pieces of that puzzle,” Piper said.

In addition to apparent increases in visitors from Germany and Australia, Piper said the visitor’s center has seen a lot of younger Canadian visitors, including ones from British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Quebec. “It seems like there were a lot more younger people coming in.”

Joyce Town, manager of Oceanside RV Park, said her business remained steady or increased a small amount over 2014. In March and April, she gets international skiers and snowboarders who heli-ski, but also rent cars and make trips over the border. “I had people here in March and April, and a couple big campers. It’s always the same guys, or guys who are affiliated with the same guys.”

Beach Roadhouse owner Amber Winkel said she saw a decrease in Canadian visitors as soon as the Canada dollar lost value about a year ago. Winkel, who’s been in business five years and rents three cabins and two rooms, said her business in the past year was on par with 2014, with visitors from other parts of Alaska helping fill the gap left by the loss of Canadian guests.

Larry Beck, manager of the Captain’s Choice Motel, said his business at the motel was down 10 percent this year, a number that he attributes to the opening of the Aspen Hotel. Beck said ferry reschedulings also cost the motel a noticeable loss of numbers twice.

Longtime innkeeper Norm Smith described the season as one of his worst. “Canadians are normally 25 percent of my business. I was offering them a 20 percent discount and I wasn’t getting them. For me, this was the worst year in about 20 years. It was worse than after Sept. 11,” Smith said.

Smith said the opening of Aspen doesn’t explain his drop, as the new hotel has just “picked up the slack” from the closing of the Thunderbird and Mountain View motels. “We were down 44 rooms when the Aspen opened.”

Smith said he was most concerned about changes to the ferry system, including fee increases and elimination of programs like driver-rides-free. “It’s hit, hit, hit, hit. The aorta of this community is the ferry and highway connection. The problem is the town is being held hostage by the people running the ferry.”

Doug Olerud, manager of Olerud’s, Inc ., said his family’s stores saw “alright’ business during the summer season, but said a drop in Canadian visitation was noticeable. “Our base sales were up a little bit over last year, but nothing to write home about,” Olerud said.

Although the season for independent operators appears fuzzy at best, it was a clear gain for businesses that make money on the local cruise dockings. Numbers of passengers stopping in Haines increased to 42,515 from 28,438 in 2014. The 32 percent increase was due to five additional dockings, including two by Princess ships. Passengers from a private fast ferry between Haines and Skagway also increased to 35,003 from 33,114 in 2014.

Alaska Fjordlines, a local catamaran tour to Juneau that typically relies on independent travelers, got back into the cruise business this year, offering local whale watching tours on Wednesdays in May and June. Chief executive officer Alison Jacobson said her family’s company adjusted to a downturn in Canadian visitors.

“We pieced it together. We’ve learned over the years we can offer different things and appeal to different markets. We just try to do whatever we can to keep the boat busy. And because we can work out of Skagway, Haines or Juneau, we have an advantage,” she said.

Jacobson said her company also saw more demand from people using her boat as ferry transportation in Lynn Canal, due in part to scheduling and other issues with the state ferry. That’s worrisome, she said, because as much as 75 percent of the company’s business is from independent travelers picked up in Skagway.

“We rely on independent travelers and they rely on a reliable ferry system. Our business will be down in the future without reliable ferries. To pull (visitors) off the Alaska Highway, they need the certainty that they can do our trip,” Jacobson said.

Alaska Nature Tours owner Dan Egolf said additional cruise dockings here helped make his season, which he described as “pretty much on par” with 2014. Ships that docked here helped make up for a drop in customers from ships docked in Skagway, he said.

Egolf, who also operates a ski shop, said two bright spots for local tourism include the increased popularity of “cultural tourism.”

“Cultural tourism is the up-and-coming thing right now. The Chilkat Indian Village has a really neat product (in the form of a cultural center expected to open in the spring). That’s right up the alley for what’s becoming more popular in the state and the region. It’s got its own momentum, to a certain degree,” Egolf said.

Tourism director Ross said she’s projecting a significant drop in cruise visitation next year, but an increase in 2017 when the borough will enact a 50 percent reduction in docking fees for all ships. “Seabourn Cruise Line is already on the schedule for 2017 and I have a positive outlook that we will have more,” Ross said.

Asked where she would put money if investing in the local tourism industry, Ross said: “I would put my money in winter tourism or in creative summer tour options – doing something unique that focuses on what makes Haines different than other ports. People love Haines, showcase the reasons people love Haines.”

According to the 2014 Alaska Visitor Statistic Program compiled by the McDowell Group, except for an 8 percent bump in 2012-13, the “highway-ferry market” has shown a “long-term, general downward trend” with visitors using the ferry more to travel between communities than to arrive and depart.

That report found that 58 percent of Alaska visitors are cruise passengers, 38 percent arrive and depart by air and 4 percent arrive and leave on the state ferry or highways.

 

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