• Some businesses report lots of foot traffic, not so much buying
By Carey Restino
Go out on the Homer Spit right now and you’re more likely to encounter a 277-pound halibut than a parking spot— indications of a robust tourist season for businesses that depend on visitors for the bulk of their sales.
But reports are that while the number of tourists has rebounded after dismal early summer numbers clouded by smoky skies, the tourists are doing a lot of tire kicking and not a lot of spending.
“I’ve been having to sweep a lot,” said retail employee for Coal Point Seafood Co. Cayenna Anderson. “We are seeing a lot of people walking through, but we aren’t getting as many orders.”
The story is the same down at Bunnell Street Arts Center, said Asia Freeman, the center’s executive director.
“Our sales have picked up nicely in July, but I realized that they are all locals,” said Freeman. “(Visitors) have definitely come in, but there is just a lot of looking and a lot of appreciative comments.”
Jim Lavrakas, director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said numbers of visitors coming through the doors of the Homer Visitor Center were down 25 percent in June, in part because of reports of smoke from the Funny River wildfires. Lavrakas said once the smoke cleared from that rumor, numbers have been picking up, and many businesses reported their July 4 weekend was their best weekend ever, he said.
Sales of derby tickets have been close to past years as well, he said.
“The general feeling I have from talking with members in the accommodations, charter and retail businesses is that we’ve been pretty steady so far in the month of July,” Lavrakas said. “The numbers seem to be really close to what they have been.”
Diane Converse, director of the Pratt Museum, said her admission numbers so far this summer have been up about 15 percent. Cruise ship traffic earlier in the season helped with that, but the museum sees a large number of Alaska visitors who bring their family members to see the museum’s exhibits.
“We get a full range of visitors,” she said. “It’s looking pretty good so far this year.”
Sharon Roufa, co-owner of Two Sisters Bakery, said business has been brisk but not overwhelming. The bakery’s second year serving dinner has also been successful, Roufa said, with the small dining room coming close to filling up most nights.
While some businesses looking for seasonal employees in the past said they found the labor pool a bit shallow, Roufa said the bakery has been able to find staff this year.
“It’s always a scramble to find people who know the work, but we’ve been able do it pretty handily this year,” she said.
Out on the Homer Spit, Dave Lyon with Ashore Water Taxi said business is the same or better than in past years. He said his business has been seeing more and more foreign travelers in recent years, especially early in the season, and this year is no exception.
While reports in the past have indicated that the bulk of Homer’s tourists are Alaska residents, Lavrakas said the chamber is still working to collect statistics to back that up. The bulk of those coming through the visitor center doors are from out of state, but that’s likely not indicative of the total visitor population as many instate visitors might not feel the need to stop at the center.
Lavrakas said the cruise ships that came to town this year will certainly add to the visitor numbers, and said new infrastructure in and around the deep water dock have been well received by cruise ship passengers. Still, the community isn’t attracting a lot of that kind of traffic.
“We’re still learning how much of a cruise ship port we want to be,” he said.
Freeman said while the number of tourists in town enjoying the center’s new gardens and its eye-catching buoy project that spills from the center’s deck to the street below, the real lesson of this year’s summer sales is the power of recycling local dollars by buying locally.
“It’s a wonderful commentary on the locally grown ethic as it affects everything from produce at the farmers market to the art community,” she said.
Lavrakas said for those feeling the impact of visitors who come to look but not buy, the best tactic is to give them the best experience one can.
“A lot of times, when people are coming to visit for the first time, they are kicking tires,” he said. “If we give them the most pleasant experience we can, they will come back.”
In general, however, Lavrakas and others say the 2014 tourist season is looking good so far.
“The campgrounds are full and the (tent) campers on the spit look like the old spit-rat days,” Lavrakas said. “My sense is that people in general are optimistic and seeing a good, steady business.”
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