Fewer tourists and staff shortages throttle businesses in the Junction

HAINES JUNCTION This year the tourists arrived late and left early, said Allison Haines, manager of Bear Creek Lodge located 10 kilometres outside…

HAINES JUNCTION

This year the tourists arrived late and left early, said Allison Haines, manager of Bear Creek Lodge located 10 kilometres outside of the Junction.

“You can sit here for an hour and not see very much traffic at all,” she said gesturing out the bar’s window, which faces the Alaska Highway.

She’s been working at the 12-room lodge for more than 18 years and has seen a steady decline in visitors, although it does get bus tours stopping in for meals.

“At one time we’d have to stay open 24-hours a day just to keep ahead of the food prep,” she said.

Now the restaurant is bringing in around $40 in a 10-hour period.

Like Bear Creek Lodge, the Cozy Corner in downtown Haines Junction has seen a similar trend of noticeably less tourists — especially from RVs and motor homes this summer.

The motel leased four of its rooms to crews working at the Aishihik Lake hydro facility for most of the summer, which saved it from going into the red.

“We were lucky in that respect, without it we would have had empty rooms all summer,” said manager Jerry Dobson.

He’s also seen a decline in visitors since the place opened in the early 90s.

“Government numbers don’t support that, but government doesn’t live out of our till,” said Dobson.

Although the Cozy Corner’s restaurant does good business with local crowds, it’s also seen fewer tourists perusing the menu.

“But it’s just as well,” said Dobson. “We didn’t have the staff to serve them and we had trouble bringing people in because there are no rental properties available.”

The Cozy Corner has bumped up its wages, but still can’t get workers to clean the rooms so it has scaled back its restaurant hours, now only opening from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the staff does double duty in the motel and restaurant.

“People who want to work can find a job wherever they want,” said Clint McCuaig, son of the Alcan Motor Inn’s owner.

Although the inn was full for most of the summer, it also had problems recruiting staff.

Workers are heading south to places like BC and Alberta where there’s more choice and higher salaries, said McCuaig.

Many employees at Haines Junction’s restaurants, hotels and highway lodges are telling similar stories — they’re short-staffed, but it’s just as well — they haven’t seen as many tourists come through the community as they have in past years.

Numbers from the Haines Junction Visitor Information Centre, as of August 23, show a seven per cent drop in tourists from last year.

But locals say they’ve seen a bigger slump than that.

Business at a Haines Junction landmark, Madley’s General Store, has been getting worse for years, said office manager Marilyn Rowe, who has seen business dwindle more than $25,000 a year.

“It’s going to be lean this winter,” she said.

Like other places, Madley’s employees saw fewer American tourists coming through the Junction.

Some speculate high gas prices and a waning American dollar kept many US tourists at home this summer.

“There’s a lot of factors and there’s nothing we can do about the high gas prices or the American dollar,” said Rowe.

But the first step is to make the community a tourist destination, rather than simply a drive-through village for people on their way to Alaska.

The region needs something established so tourists stay another day, like a golf course, said Kluane Yukon Party candidate Jim Bowers.

Surprisingly, the hotels haven’t seen the spin-off benefits originally predicted from being so close to Kluane National Park, said Dobson, who speculates it’s because the park isn’t easily reachable for average tourists.

“A family of four is not going to go into that park, it’s not accessible to them,” he said.

He’d also like to open more of the wilderness so it is accessible to tourist traffic.

Meanwhile, the village is doing what it can, said Haines Junction mayor John Farynowski.

The St. Elias Convention Centre has played host to groups from all over the world, and many of the people who come for a conference come back for a vacation, or vice-versa.

“People can come up here and check their e-mail on the deck while they look at the mountains. We had all they wanted — high-speed internet and room to roam,” he said.

And, this year the village hosted another eight weddings — five at the convention centre and three around the area.

“The cost is half of what it might be in Whitehorse,” said Farynowski.