Web posted Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Tourism industry officials hopeful

By SHANA LOSHBAUGH
Peninsula Clarion

Although signs of a thaw are appearing, Alaska's tourism industry remains under the wintry chill the Sept. 11 events cast over worldwide travel.

Charlene Spadafore Vassar, marketing manager for the Alaska Travel Industry Association, spoke about the unprecedented situation Tuesday at the Greater Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

"As of 9-11, everything changed drastically," she said.

Surveys since have shown that advance bookings for Alaska's visitor destinations are down 30 to 40 percent. The decline could cost the state millions of dollars in economic activity, decrease municipal tax revenues and eliminate 1,500 jobs, she warned.

"That has a trickle-down effect on a lot of businesses we don't even associate with tourism," she said.

New survey results due out soon may shed light on whether the situation is improving, she said.

Other states and cities that court tourists have issued emergency funds to beef up their promotions and lure visitors back. In addition to New York City, they include places like Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Alaska's spending to promote tourism, both from private business and the state government, remains small in comparison, she said.

Vassar expressed disappointment that the Legislature did not approve a proposed $6 million bail-out for the industry. Some lawmakers are still interested in finding assistance, she noted.

Despite the problems this year, Alaska's tourism industry and the ATIA have a lot going for them, she told the group.

"Tourism is Alaska's No. 2 private sector employer," she said.

She outlined the industry's track record as a major source of income, a tax generator and an exemplar of local hire. Market research shows plenty of potential for growth, as travelers around the United States and world are interested in coming to Alaska and, once they do, show high rates of satisfaction and return trips.

Wilderness beauty is the state's big selling point. The ATIA is promoting Alaska as a place with more mountains than buildings and more wildlife than people, she said.

The ATIA was founded in 1999 and has more than 1,000 members, according to its literature. It combined previous tourism-oriented organizations and agencies in response to changes in the industry and declines in state-funded tourism marketing. It is a statewide nonprofit, membership organization headquartered in Anchorage.

For potential visitors, the ATIA annually publishes the Official Alaska State Vacation Planner and maintains a Web site, avp.travelalaska.com, with information, enticements and links to business services such as specials for visitors. For members, it offers advertising reach, marketing research, credit card discounts and a free job-posting board.

Vassar said the ATIA's goal is to heighten travelers' awareness of Alaska and inspire them to take the step from daydreaming about a visit to committing to specific plans. Priority projects include expanding membership, promoting year-round travel and diversifying visitor activities.

The Soldotna audience talked about recent rumors suggesting that bookings are picking up as people make last-minute summer plans. Vassar agreed that she had heard some bookings are heating up.

Dru Garson, who became the acting executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council Inc. in February, said his organization is gearing up this spring. It just hired a new sales manager and is poised to start a membership drive. His informal discussions with peninsula businesses suggest that 2002 may not be too bad after all.

"A lot of them have expressed a pretty optimistic outlook," he said.

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