Foreign visitors buoy tour season
Visitation by Canadian and overseas visitors helped stanch losses in tourism during the summer season, including a 12 percent drop in cruise ship passengers.
Hotelier Jeff Butcher said his business dropped maybe a percentage point or two, but he also shortened his season this year. "All in all, it was not a bad year. June was down, but the rest of the year was about on par. It wasn’t terribly disappointing. It doesn’t seem like it’s getting any worse."
A favorable exchange rate plus flights from Europe to Whitehorse, Y.T ., are encouraging Germans and even Australians to Haines, he said. "Alaska has become affordable for those who want to do it."
Merchants’ impressions seem to generally jibe with Haines Borough sales tax figures. According to the borough, revenues were up an average of more than 8 percent for January, February and March, compared to 2010.
In April, June and July, revenues were down an average of 3.6 percent. Revenues were up nearly 5 percent in May and ran about even with 2010 for August. By September, sales tax revenues were less than 1 percent ahead of last year.
Alison Jacobson said her family’s private ferry business is drawing more attention from Canada and Europe, with receipts up a bit from 2010.
"It wasn’t up a lot, but it was encouraging. We started out conservative, then we were adding days because it was a little better than we expected…We saw the continued decline of the Lower 48 traffic from what it used to be during the big payday time, but we are seeing continued growth throughout Canada, especially the Yukon, and international folks, like the German market and Switzerland."
Dan Egolf, who operates a sporting goods store and a shore excursion business, said stifling weather down south encouraged some tourists to head to Alaska.
"We did get a lot of people from places in the Lower 48, whose states were, basically, on fire, and they looked forward to getting out of the hot country and under the clouds in Southeast," he said. "In terms of our store, we’re seeing more and more Canadians all the time, especially with the parity in the U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar."
Tallies from U.S. and Canada border stations between May and September show slightly increased tire traffic in both directions. Northbound, vehicles increased to 9,724 from 9,117 in 2010; and brought 20,191 people across the border, up from 20,035.
Vehicles southbound rose to 12,350 from 12,232, but individuals dropped to 22,241 from 25,455.
"There’s a tremendous amount of traffic from Whitehorse," said Norm Smith, a Fort Seward innkeeper. "It’s our big market now, I think, because of the strong dollar, the accessibility of the road, and Whitehorse loves Haines."
Cruise ships docked in Haines 23 times this season, down one from 2010. Passengers also decreased, to 27,263 from 30,850.
"I don’t think that’s how it was supposed to happen, but with two ships canceling this year, it really took a big hit for us," said tourism director Tanya Carlson.
Kristine Harder, who runs a Main Street boutique, said if seasonal businesses stayed open until mid-October each year, they likely would be rewarded with an influx of Canadians celebrating their Thanksgiving in Haines.
"Obviously, I did better on the days when we had cruise ships here, yet what really, really surprised me about my season was this little boost that we had during the Canadian Thanksgiving," Harder said of the days leading into the Monday, Oct. 10, holiday. "During that one week, with the road traffic from Whitehorse, that week I did as well as any other week of the summer, even the weeks that I had two cruise ships."
Harder opened her year-round boutique last November.
"I projected what I hoped to do in a year, and my summer sales were far below what I expected," she said. "However, my middle of the winter sales were slightly above what I projected, so it balanced out. If I were just a touristy store, I wouldn’t have the sales from the locals in the winter."
Innkeeper Smith said the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in Haines was "one of the biggest we’ve had."
Joyce Town said Thanksgiving filled her RV park and was "a great shot in the arm."
When referring to the summer season, though, Town said, "I’m afraid it was a lot slower."
"We did have a very slow start, and I was thinking that was mostly weather all over the globe that was causing that," she said. "We did get a good July and August."
Town said business was down 57 percent at the beginning of June, but the park improved to 12 percent off its 2010 pace by the end of September. She said travelers are being more frugal.
"Nobody wanted full hook-ups," Town said. "They were just trying to go the least expensive they could possibly go. Even when I looked full, I wasn’t getting my full dollar."
Bookstore owner Tom Heywood reported a different trend, with sales dipping at the end of the summer.
"It started off fairly average, and ended very below average," he said.
Heywood said August and September were the worst on record in his family’s dozen years running the store. He said many cruise ship visitors were "browsing, but not buying."
"(Cruise ship days) were not, generally, a guarantee to be our biggest day of the week, by any means," Heywood said.
He said competition with online merchants is "not something that’s new," but Kindle and other electronic reading devices now present another challenge for independent bookstores. Heywood said he plans to further diversify the store’s offerings to boost business.
Andy Hedden of Chilkat Guides said 2011 was "a mixed year" for the company.
"We were down on our eagle preserve rafting tours and we were slightly up with our Glacier Point trip," he said. "With the official loss of Cruise West, and a few other departures not arriving this year that did come last year, we just had less to pick from for Haines ships and a little bit less in Skagway, as well."
Hedden said Chilkat Guides is planning to add two more boats next summer, and each will carry about two-dozen passengers.
"There are more people coming into Skagway, so we’re hoping that will be a natural boost," he said. "The addition of the smaller boats to the Glacier Point program is intended to draw more business by taking people in smaller groups and making it more of an intimate experience."
Tourism director Carlson said direct flights from Germany to Whitehorse have helped the Haines economy, but the visitor center website receives the most attention abroad from residents of Spain.
Residents from Whitehorse, Juneau and Anchorage are the biggest users of the website, currently followed by Seattle and New York City, Carlson said. The Spanish capital of Madrid then tops Portland and Los Angeles.
"I was really surprised to see such a high number from Spain, because I guess I don’t see that much of Spanish-speaking Europe here," Carlson said.
She noted the visitor center can tailor online advertisements to specific countries.
The rank-order of web traffic, after the United States and Canada, is Spain, Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Brazil, Carlson said.
"Brazil is actually one of the biggest emerging markets right now, right behind China, so it’s certainly one to watch," she said.