The Haines Borough released its Haines Winter Visitor Industry study this week, which identifies heli-skiing as the sector with the most potential for growth.

The $30,000 study conducted by the McDowell Group analyzed data and trends from October 2013 to April 2014. It included interviews with more than 40 regional business owners, recreational club representatives and event organizers, and used data from a half-dozen state and federal agencies to identify and analyze the impact of winter visitors on the Haines economy.

According to the study, heli-skiers account for the largest number of winter pleasure visitors, and spend the most on a per-person basis. Of the roughly 2,000 pleasure visitors that came to Haines during the study’s seven-month span, more than one-quarter were heli-skiers.

“Although Haines is already well known as a heli-skiing destination, exposure is likely to increase due to its participation in the Freeride World Tour event in 2015, and planned construction of a winter recreation lodge featuring heli-skiing. Growth in this sector is currently constrained by permitting and regulations; it will be up to the community to decide if growth in this sector is desired,” the study reads.

The study focused on the 2,000 pleasure visitors who came to Haines, as non-pleasure visitors (who visit Haines for business, family or school-related events) are likely to visit Haines “regardless of any efforts to attract them.”

Haines had 7,000 non-pleasure visitors during the seven months the study looked at.

“Most of the heli-skiing contacts interviewed for this study believed there to be strong potential for growth in Haines’ heli-skiing market,” the study said. “Both operators stated that in previous years they have had to turn away business due to permitting constraints. (It is necessary to have more user days than will actually be used because of unpredictable weather conditions. Operators must be able to book all their user days, knowing that there will be some weather cancellations.)” the study said. 

Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures owner Scott Sundberg said he was glad for the borough to have a study with objective numbers not coming directly or solely from a developer or industry.

  “We can point to it and say, ‘This is what we have been telling you and you should consider it,’” Sundberg said. “This is just a reaffirmation about what we have been saying.”

   “(It is) always up to the community, but I think that all parts of the winter growth sector or the winter industry have room to grow without squandering lifestyle or (impeding) each of the different activities,” Sundberg said.

Tourism director Leslie Ross agreed having concrete numbers on heli-skiing is good to have on paper. “The heli-ski industry is an area that could grow immensely, so it’s good to have those constraints down in a study,” Ross said.

In addition to heli-skiing, the study also looked at other potential markets for growth like backcountry skiing, special events like the Alcan 200 snowmachine race, ice hockey and meetings or conferences.

Ross said she was encouraged to see that ski club representatives from Juneau and Whitehorse were interested in coming to Haines if there were more groomed trails. Connecting with those groups and having them come to Haines for events like the annual Dennis Miles Memorial Ski Race could boost winter revenues for restaurants and hotels, Ross said.

The study found that several sectors of the tourism industry have dropped in recent years. “Compared to four to five years ago, non-resident ferry traffic is down by 12 percent; air traffic is down 7 percent; border crossings by U.S. citizens are down 35 percent; and bed taxes are down 10 percent. Winter employment in leisure and hospitality is also down by 17 percent in the last five years,” the study said. “Some of the decline may be attributable to non-pleasure visitors, such as pass-through military personnel and business travelers. Still, increasing visitor activity in the off-season may begin as an uphill battle.”

Other challenges to winter tourism growth identified by the study included a downward trend in summer tourism that disturbs the town’s “healthy base,” and the closure of many businesses during the winter.

“While the addition of the Aspen Hotel will help combat this problem, some visitors may still be discouraged by the lack of dining and retail options. The situation will only be remedied by more visitors coming to town and creating the demand, causing business owners in turn to consider opening for more months of the year,” the study said.

  Tourism director Ross said she is working on a new strategy for helping businesses stay open called the Business Retention Expansion Program. The statewide program surveys businesses and compiles information and data, which is then used by communities to understand what restaurants and businesses need to remain open.

  In addition to heli-skiing growth potential, the study identified other opportunities that could stimulate growth including the opening of the Aspen Hotel, SEABA’s pursuit of an eco-lodge near 26 Mile Haines Highway, growing visitation by Yukon residents, and heightened interest and momentum in cross-country skiing.

  Other suggestions from interviews included creating an eco-challenge/traverse event, an ice-fishing event, a hut-to-hut system for cross-country and/or backcountry skiing, and promoting fall color viewing to regional residents.