Two years of disasters test Peninsula tourism

Sep 2, 2020

The end of summer is upon us.
    Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most recreational travel, this summer was predicted to be a potentially record-breaking year for tourism, and a welcome one after the wildfires of 2019 isolated much of the Kenai Peninsula and kept tourists abay.
    Debbie Speakman of Homer is the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. She was asked which has been worse for peninsula businesses: wildfire or pandemic, on a recent Talk of Alaska with Lori Townsend.
    “The coronavirus is putting a nail in the coffin. The fire was all summer long and that's a hard one. I know for Cooper landing, the fire was devastating. And part of it was the pictures we'd see on the news with the wall of fire. And there were days where you couldn't get through, but for Sterling-south, we didn't have -- Anchorage had more smoke,” she said. “And so there was still a lot of activity going on. Yeah, that's a hard one and I don't know if we’ll know that answer until we get to October and can look at those sales tax numbers.”
    Speakman said it’s tough to work all day and then apply for relief grants after work.
    “Let's just talk about a (hypothetical) river guide. So he's a private contractor working for a lodge, and he's trying to get out on the water. And, you know, he's out there from 4 a.m until six at night, and then coming home to be a grant writer,” she said. “And someone may have gotten the PPP or EIDL from the feds, and then it gets them to a certain degree and then AK-CARES comes out and there's you know, these big hurdles. Do you send back that money that you don't have anymore so you're qualified for more money from the state?”
    She said overall the Kenai Peninsula Borough and its incorporated cities and partners have stepped up, but she’s not sure it will be enough.
    “And I really do have to applaud the Kenai Peninsula Borough for what they've done, and working with our municipalities and for those areas outside of our incorporated areas. But the frustration, it's taking a long time for our state to get those funds dispersed. The house is on fire, and you know, we've been kind of been begging our legislators to go into a special session. And they've made some great strides the last couple of weeks, so we are seeing some funds coming out, but the house is on fire.”
    Speakman said fully half of Homer’s visitors come from in-state.
    “We are very, very thankful for our neighbors in Anchorage and the Mat-Su. They are really keeping us afloat.”
    Nevertheless, she says some tourism-related businesses may have to close.
    “So I am hearing from a lot of folks, lodge owners and fishing guides, on the Russian and Kenai, and even the Kasilof with bad fish numbers with, catch limits, you know, lowering and the fire, and now this,” she said. “There's quite a few that are saying that they're done or they're just not going to make it.”
    Speakman appeared on APRN’s Talk of Alaska.