Damp tour season recovered, a bit
A drop in highway traffic and unusually cool weather dampened the early visitor season in Haines, but numbers recovered a bit later, according to Haines Borough officials and operators of tourism-related businesses.
It was a “scary, slow start” for her family’s catamaran tour, with business in May and June down compared to those months in previous years, said owner Alison Jacobson. Mud slides, road closures and cold took a toll. “May and June were tough. I think people just didn’t come down as much in May and June because they were afraid to come.”
Haines Borough sales tax revenues dipped to $867,697 from May through July from $893,252 for the same months in 2011. Numbers are not yet available for August and September.
Business in July and August was similar to, and perhaps even better than that in recent years, helping buffer the season’s slow start, Jacobson said. However, she said the company didn’t sell as many round-trip tickets for Juneau day trips and saw proportionately more Canadian and European customers.
The company has reduced the numbers of days it operates each summer from 120 to about 85. “What we expect now is not what we expected years ago when things were much better, and it’s not going to return because of the economy and the price of fuel,” Jacobson said.
Cold, rainy weather also tended to keep cruise ship passengers on board rather than walking around town and perusing shops, said borough tourism director Tanya Carlson.
Harbor RV park owner Joyce Town likewise saw a “very, very, very slow start,” with sales down 24 percent between April and June. But things started to pick up and business was in “full force” for July and August, she said, with a 6 percent increase those months.
Early in the season, customers were mainly Canadians and vacationers from the Lower 48 trying to beat the rush, she said. “They got here way too early. Everything else was closed. They didn’t realize they were that early.”
Many of the end-of-season customers were Alaskans, which, she said, hasn’t been typical of other years.
Business at her RV park peaked around 2009 or 2010. Gas prices had gone up, but they weren’t extreme enough to stop a lot of people from coming, she said.
Karen Hess’ shore excursion jetboat tours also saw a late start this season due to weather, she said. “It (business) was down a little bit. It was a difficult year. It was a late spring. And we lost some big days because of the floods.”
If not for the weather, business would have been about equal to last year, she said. Her numbers peaked in 2007, she said, attributing the decline to the national recession and reduced sailings to Alaska.
Chilkat Guides operations director Andy Hedden said that in terms of overall sales volume, this summer was fairly similar to last. Sales from the Haines rafting program rose about 5 percent while sales from the Glacier Point program “went down dramatically” due to cancellations related to the weather, he said.
Dan Egolf, who offers shore excursion nature tours and operates a outdoor gear store, said he saw a bigger drop in retail than in tours. “We’re a little down compared to previous seasons, but we’re still kicking. Compared to some people, we feel privileged to still be employed.”
Egolf said that since 2008, less expensive tours have become more popular. In addition, business from Canadian visitors is becoming more important to his store, he said.
A bright spot for his tour business was traffic of brown bears along the Chilkoot River. Bears aren’t affected by weather and this year they seemed to be particularly active and abundant, he said.
One photographed bear can make $1 million for a community in the course of its lifetime, Egolf said. A bruin nicknamed “Big Mamba Jamba” has made at least that, and has produced cubs, he said. “We’re lucky to have that little golden egg…We need to sustain it.”
Gift shop owner Fred Shields said that he has noticed fewer road travelers in recent years, a trend he attributes to the lagging national economy.
His shop’s business peaked in 2000 when four large cruise ships per week were docking here. “Since then, it’s been down, up, down, up, down, up, with more down than up, in terms of sales volume,” he said. “This year was almost exactly like last year, and last year was not a top year.”
Bookstore owner Liz Heywood said sales dropped abruptly and significantly from last summer, to 25 percent below the average for the 14 years her family has run the business, Heywood said. “That’s huge.”
Heywood said business wasn’t affected so much by the cruise ship. Mondays – a day without local ship dockings – is typically her busiest. She’s attributing the steep drop to the rise of electronic books, like the Kindle.
Unlike most other retailers, Mary Jean Borcik said business at her coffee shop and grocery store was up, about 5 percent. “This year seemed certainly the same if not better than last year.” Cold, rainy weather may have helped, she said. “Maybe that’s what brought them in. It’s cold outside, grab a hot cup of coffee.”
Borcik said she hasn’t seen a decline in business from recent years and the store attracts cruise ship passengers. She said she also noticed independent travelers from Australia, New Zealand and Britain.
Other than a slow June, innkeeper Norm Smith said his business kept pace with last year.
“Business has been pretty steady for a number of years. I really haven’t noticed a significant downturn. It could always be better, but it’s been good,” he said. He attributed the business to a room shortage in Haines, caused by the closure of local motel.
Smith has noticed that while there has not been a decrease in the number of clients, there have been fewer days his bed and breakfast is full.
With two additional dockings by Princess cruise ships and the in-season addition of American Spirit ships, this year’s numbers of cruise passengers (about 30,000) will exceed last year’s 27,263, said tourism director Carlson.
Carlson said figures from the federal Department of Transportation show increasing air traffic in Haines, with nearly 20,000 arrivals and departures per year. Carlson said the numbers are puzzling, as they exceed even those from 10 years ago, when the town was serviced by three air carriers.
The numbers increased from last year for every month except January, she said.
Both northbound and southbound road traffic crossing the border was lighter this season than to last. From May to August, 7,606 vehicles crossed the border going northbound. Last year during those months, there were 8,470. From May to August this year, 9,722 vehicles crossed the border going southbound. Last year during those months, there were 10,498.
Carlson said a drop in highway traffic also was reported in Haines Junction and Whitehorse, Y.T.