Story last updated at 11:13 a.m. Thursday, July 11, 2002

Tourism industry cruising
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Summer tourists come to Alaska by air, they come by 3,000 miles of wilderness highway, they come by sea. Much the way fishermen trust that a run of salmon will return to its natal stream, waiting on the arrival of lucrative tourist traffic is something of an act of faith for those Alaskans who operate businesses seeking to cater to them.

Over the last year, certain nation-altering events and economic trends made some in the industry question how the 2002 tourist season would pan out.

In February, the Homer Chamber of Commerce presented speaker Dennis Brandon, who gave some frightening figures about a precipitous decline in bookings statewide. Despite that, Brandon predicted Homer was in a position to fare well, and Homer's early tourist returns for this summer tend to back him up.

Businesses across town have been reporting numbers that are at the very least on a par with last year. And if the steady stream of traffic heading to and from the Spit is any indication, the attraction of Kachemak Bay's adventurous activities, from fishing to hiking to fly-out tours, continues to provide a hook for travelers.

Mike Warburton, owner of the Ocean Shores Motel, said his bookings were up for the month of June compared with previous years and, he added, "the number of travelers from the Lower 48 states seems to be up."

"And they're here to do a wider variety of things," Warburton said of his guests. "They're coming to Homer for things like bear viewing and sea kayaking, not just fishing. Our base seems to be broadening."

Bob Clutts, owner of the Anchor River Inn, agreed that the dark predictions of a fall in tourism hadn't come to fruition for his business, where bookings in June were level and July bookings appear to be better than those of previous years.

"I'm not really surprised at how we're doing," Clutts said. "I've listened to these doomsayers for almost 40 years. Nothing surprises me anymore."

While the mood in Homer seems relatively positive, Warburton said people in Seward were not feeling so upbeat about the season thus far.

"I heard a couple of folks in Seward complaining that there wasn't as much traffic (this year)," Warburton said.

The Homer Chamber of Commerce showed a small decline in June visitors compared with 2001, but Executive Director Derotha Ferraro said last year's exceptional June weather led to more visits from Alaskans than usual. This year's June numbers, 2,044 visitors through the door, look right on par with 2000, she said.

"Overall, our traditional visitor is here and looking fine," Ferraro added. "Our phone just kept ringing strong. We had no indicators locally that we were going to have a slow season."

Ticket sales were down by 700 tickets at the chamber's Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby as of July 3. But with an operation that typically sells 15,000 tickets in a season, Ferraro said that discrepancy could easily be made up later in the season.

"That can be made up in one week," she said. "All it takes (to fall behind) is just one day of boats not fishing and you can have hundreds of refunds."

Halibut remains the fish that put Homer on the tourism road map, with thousands of charters heading out to fishing grounds of lower Cook Inlet each season.

Doug Judge, who fishes on the Restless and owns Alaska Adventure Fishing Charters, said his business hasn't slowed a bit. "Not at all," Judge said from his cell phone as he motored in from a day of fishing with a full boat and a limit of halibut. The behavior of a couple of Judge's clients illustrated Outside travelers' fixation with Homer's halibut.

Rick and Sandy Elder of Brimley, Mich., planned their long-awaited trip to Alaska last winter, having saved for several years to make it happen.

"I'm a college professor, and we've planned to charter fish in Alaska all our lives," Rick Elder said.

The Elders booked a halibut charter with Judge in January and figured it as the centerpiece of their trip. But their trip was canceled when July 4 dawned with 30-knot winds and 6- to 8-foot seas at the mouth of Kachemak Bay.

The Elders were so committed to halibut fishing that they opted to stay in the Homer area an extra week until they could get on another of Judge's trips. The reward for their patience was more than 200 pounds of halibut fillets.

While the fishing industry is a mainstay in Homer, whale watching is a relatively new tourist attraction for Rainbow Tours. In just its second year, the Rainbow Tours whale-watching program has seen an increase in traffic, according to co-owner Fran Quinlan.

A group of whale watchers on a recent Rainbow Tours trip to the Kenai Peninsula's outer coast was treated to the rare sight of a pod of killer whales attacking and killing what was thought to be a humpback whale.

The chance of having a memorable wildlife experience is a key reason that Alaska will always prove to be a popular draw for tourists. According to Dru Garson, the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, that type of experience could be the antidote for the anxiety of a traveling public fearful about the threat of terrorism.

"That is one advantage we do have. We're a U.S. state and a safe destination, but we're exotic enough to have that added appeal," Garson said. "People visiting Alaska are more concerned with wildlife encounters than with a terrorist encounter."