Overall, the summer of 2013 was a good one for Homer businesses.
By the end of the year, the number of visitors to the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center will top 10,000 people; the number of tourists coming through Homer will be much higher. In interviews with 14 local businesses, they were asked to rate the summer on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best, and 75 percent of those asked rated the summer as an eight or nine.
“Every year is a 10,” said Mako Haggerty, owner of Mako’s Water Taxi.
Others shared Haggerty’s enthusiasm.
“If we are healthy and the fish are healthy, that’s what makes a good season. We are so blessed to be here,” said Nancy Hillstrand, owner of Coal Point Trading Company.
Officials at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center said it was the best year for Homer in a long time. Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby ticket sales were stronger than previous years, with 5,000 Alaskans entering and 10,000 out-of-staters. Along with local Alaskans getting out and about the state, Homer also saw more international tourists, including travelers from Germany and Russia.
Jim Lavrakas, executive director of the chamber, said he imagines more tourists will come to Alaska next season because of the media shine on Alaska.
Just last week, Lavrakas was escorting professional travel writers from Trek America to some of Kachemak Bay’s highlights.
This summer, two stories were published in Sunset Magazine. One of the two articles included Homer in a list of “Top Places to Camp.” Also this summer, Homer battled Seward for best things to see, in Where Traveler magazine.
“Our best selling point is the nature and beauty of the outdoors, and this year’s wonderful weather contributed to people’s experience here,” said Lavrakas.
The Pratt Museum saw local residents, as well as visitors from around the country and abroad. While attendance at special events and free programs was higher than last year, the actual number of people coming through the door to visit the galleries was similar to last year.
According to Marcia Lynn, communications coordinator for the museum, two events — the exhibit, “Encounters: Whales in Our Waters, Whale Tales” and Tamamta Katurlluta: A Gathering of Native Tradition — brought visitors from Kachemak Bay, Anchorage and around the Kenai Peninsula. Considering the lack of cruise ship visitors to Homer this season compared to the previous year, the museum experienced a busier summer overall.
The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies saw increases in trips and revenues.
Beth Trowbridge, director of the center, said, “For us it was a great summer. In comparison to the past five years, it’s been the best.” She attributed the increase to marketing outreach that the center did last fall.
Trowbridge also agreed weather was a factor in getting Alaskans out and about, especially to the Peterson Bay Field Station and Homer Spit tours. She also noticed visitors had more resources for travel spending, due to an improved economy.
Charter boats and water taxis
Central Charters Manager Kathy Rider agreed the summer was strong, thanks to the warm, sunny weather. Tour bookings over the past few summers have been increasing, she said.
North Country Halibut Charters co-owner Gerri Martin said advance bookings were stronger than in the past.
Daniel’s Personalized Guide Services reported a slow start, but business increased rapidly. Owner Daniel Donich said, “June was probably the best June ever.” Due to an improved economy, Donich began seeing bookings early in 2013 and said they already are appearing for the 2014 season.
“I think over the past few years (the charter fleet) has shrunk 40-50 percent due to retirement, difficulty of fishing, and the high price of halibut shares making it difficult for the younger generation to enter this skilled trade,” said Donich. His season isn’t over, as he continues fishing. He said king salmon were off the charts this year, and that there still are plenty of fish in the sea, with his largest fish caught Sept. 25 measuring 75 inches.
Mako Haggerty, owner of Mako’s Water Taxi, agreed weather contributed in a big way to business success during the summer.
“More Alaskans wanted to go places this year,” he said.
For Ocean Shores owner Mike Warburton, the summer went really well, with statistics similar to 2008. He credited the good showing with good weather, an improved economy and more business from cruise-line bus tours.
Last year, Warburton had two bus tours stay at his lodge; this year he had 30. He expects 2014 to be even bigger. “Premier Alaskan Tours is adding another tour, People-to-People tour, which is going to invite affluent teens to experience Alaska’s rough outdoors, and I think it will be beneficial to summer 2014,” said Warburton. People are not worried about sliding into an economic depression, so they are starting to spend money on traveling to Alaska, he said.
Spy Glass Inn owner Pat Melone agreed it was the busiest summer ever. Tourists from all over the globe, the Lower 48 and
Alaska were taking advantage of Alaska’s beauty, especially outdoor activities such as kayaking, hiking, and trips across the bay, she said.
Carri Thurman, co-owner of Two Sisters Bakery said, “It was a great summer, and surprisingly busier than the past even without the cruise ship lines coming through,” she said. Her other observation was that there were more youthful adventure travelers.
Fresh Catch owner Harrison McHenry said every season could be good or bad, and what is important is community involvement with each other.
“Alaskan-grown products really stepped up their game this year with a longer season, and making it more readily available,” said McHenry, who was impressed with Homer’s farmers and fisherman.
It wasn’t all happy tales for local businesses.
Clint Hlebechuk started Hallo Bay Camp 27 years ago, when people thought he was crazy, and now there are bear viewing and hunting operations popping up everywhere, he said.
“A couple years ago, you could find 25-30 bears in one spot. Now you will see one bear and 92 people viewing it,” said Hlebechuk.
He expects even more interest in bear-viewing opportunities when Disney releases “Bears” on April 18, 2014. The production, which was two years in the making, was filmed partially at Hallo Bay.
Bay Excursions was another business that reported only an average summer. Owner Karl Stoltzfus said his tours were up, but his water taxi services were down a bit due to the expansion of similar business in the Homer area.
Still, whether a particular business’s bottom line rose or fell, the people of Homer were able to experience spectacular weather and enjoy Alaska’s beauty.
“Overall it was a darn good year,” said Donich.
Heather Ericson is a freelance writer living in Homer.