The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

World traveler suggests that Seward explore geotourism


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Local businessman Willard Dunham listens in Jonathan Tourtellot (right), a world traveler and longtime senior editor for the National Geographic Traveler magazine, speaks to the Seward Rotary Club.

As the busy tourism season wound down local leaders took time for introspection. The Seward area could become a location for a new trend and concept in travel, “geotourism,” if there is a concerted effort locally to make it happen, said visiting expert Jonathan Tourtellot, a world traveler and longtime senior editor for the National Geographic Traveler magazine. Tourtellot came to Seward last week while touring Alaska via the University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension Service. He was hosted by Willard Dunham and Seward Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cindy Clock.

Tourtellot, who also created the society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations, and originated the term “geotourism,” discussed its potential for Seward with some of the top business leaders and city representatives following a Rotary International Club meeting at the Breeze Inn on Sept. 10.

Geotourism’s aim is to promote the kind of tourism that sustains or enhances the unique geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well being of its residents. Tourtellot’s visit to the state would start Alaskans thinking about encouraging the kind of tourism that caters to smaller groups of people who would spend more dollars on higher quality, more unique real-life Alaska experiences. Not everyone likes to be herded around on large tour coaches or cruise ships for their vacations, Tourtellot said. A rule of thumb for how tourism works is one overnight tourist is worth four day-trekkers in terms of dollars spent, he said, because they overnight at hotels or bed and breakfasts, eat all their meals locally, shop and have time for more activities.

Quizzing the city’s leaders about how tourism promotion works here, Tourtellot learned that much of the emphasis on Seward tourism relates to the cruise ship industry. But despite 58 ships arriving in Seward between mid-May and mid-September, each bringing several thousand guests, cruise ship tourism actually plays a very small part in Seward’s tourist market overall, said former Mayor Willard Dunham.

Forty-one percent of all Seward visitors come from the Anchorage Bowl, or are friends and relatives of local residents, said Tom Tougas, who owns Major Marine Tours and Seward Hertz Rentals. These visitors are three times as valuable to the economy as the cruise ship passenger, he added. Only 15 percent of visitors are cruise ship related travelers.

The chamber has never really explored what kind of tourist to bring in, Clock admitted. “Our strategy is to get as many people as possible here from May 15 to Sept. 15,” she said. The chamber also is trying to extend the length of the tourist season, or attract visitors in the winter. Those who do currently visit, spend a lot on attractions such as the Alaska SeaLife Center or wildlife cruises, but not as much in retail.

The city’s budget is built primarily on sales taxes, which brings in a third of all the money that the city collects, said Assistant City Manager Ron Long. It’s primarily generated during the tourism season. The challenge is to keep businesses open and profitable during the winter, when costs increase and customers decrease, he said. The bed tax, garnered from overnight visitors, goes to the chamber to expand tourism generally, which it does through its print brochures and visits to trade shows.

Tortellot asked whether Seward ever closely examined the high and low points of the average tourist’s experiences, and their satisfaction levels overall. He wondered if they surveyed tourists about whether they find the town attractive or not, and suggested that they start doing so. Geotourism is known also for enhancing a town’s historic downtown, its unique attractions and local arts scene.

The chamber relies for tourist satisfaction information on the data that the state and Kenai Peninsula agencies collect and analyze, Clock said. The chamber also learns about customer satisfaction generally from talking with local operators.

Tourtellot suggested Seward conduct informal exit surveys of all its visitors, perhaps those getting ready to leave town at gas stations. “You might be surprised at the answers you get,” he said. The data gathered from large operators would probably be biased, he said. The visitor also suggested that Seward look into what type of tourism it wants to promote, and the kind of experiences tourists from different areas of the globe would want.

About 68 percent of visitors who rent motor homes (a relatively large sector of Seward’s tourists) are from German-speaking countries, noted Tom Tougas. They’re looking for high-end products and high-quality experiences in Alaska, he said. Meanwhile, the average American visitors are looking for deals.

Many independent travelers like him who would prefer the more intimate Alaska experiences that truly would provide a sense of place, Tourtellot said. They would be pleased to learn that they can fly to Alaska and explore the state independently, stay at Alaskan-owned small bed and breakfasts, be guided as they fish for their own dinners, and learn new ways to prepare the fish they catch. Some communities even tout their own special signature dishes or drinks, which also could be a good promotion idea for Seward, Tourtellot said. The Kenai Fjords National Park and Alaska SeaLife Center also are great resources that should be promoted, and used for all they’re worth, he said.

Tourtellot was accompanied by UAA professor Dr. Edgar Blatchford and Dr. Steve Hsueh-Ming Wang, an associate professor of the Engineering, Science & Project Management department at UAA.

Seward needs to promote itself via real-time web-based information that can be found online, or a smart-phone app, informing people where they can stay, the best places to eat, and great things they can do, said Hsueh-Ming Wang. Today’s travelers are increasingly relying on these methods rather than on printed brochures that may not be up-to-date. Seward should also look to Asian markets and to find ways to entice that growing sector of new tourists, Wang said. In the next five years, the largest group of world travelers will be the new Chinese middle class. They tend to visit Hawaii primarily, but would also be willing to turn to Alaska if given the information they need and the reason to do so, he said.

There are already efforts underway to capitalize on the burgeoning Japanese visitor sector through promoting the legacy of Jujiro Wada in Alaska, said Blatchford. Wada is an important, but little known Alaska pioneer and marathon runner, who could be a “gold mine” for the state and for Seward, he said. Formerly from Japan, Wada first surveyed and pioneered the Iditarod Trail. Seward is a running community, and also home to mile zero of the Iditarod Trail.


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