Correction: Earlier online editions had the wrong photo with this story. The Russian River Lodge, which is referenced in this article, is closing at the end of the year. It is owned by Lindsay Hilsinger.
In some ways, the Russian River Lodge in Bells Flats is a microcosm of Kodiak’s tourism industry during COVID.
Travel restrictions and the cost of making the lodge safe to quarantine gutted the company’s revenue. And although things have improved this year, a quarter of the Russian River Lodge’s visitors typically come from other countries, and travel restrictions have continued to shut out that demographic.
The final blow was when one of owner Lindsay Hilsinger’s investors pulled out at the start of the pandemic. As a result, she lost the Lodge building and with that the business. It will close permanently at the end of the year, Hilsinger said.
Most Kodiak tourism businesses faced a tough 2020.
Unlike the Russian River Lodge, many of them were able to bounce back this year. Tourism in Kodiak still faces struggles — in large part due to travel restrictions — but the industry has rebounded faster than many people anticipated. That doesn’t mean business is back to where it was pre-COVID.
Typical was the thought shared by Mary Doubt, owner of A Channel View Bed and Breakfast.
“I might have had another space open for the summer had I known there would be such a demand,” said Doubt. “But I still don’t think it’s back to normal.”
At various times this summer, Doubt has had to turn away potential guests, in part due to reduced capacity this year.
Kodiak’s travel infrastructure and the availability of a COVID vaccine could position the island to make next year’s tourism business even stronger.
Alaska Airlines has added flights to Kodiak this year. In 2019, it scheduled two flights a day from Anchorage to Kodiak and back, and in 2020 that number dropped to one a day on most days. This summer, Alaska Airlines ran three flights a day to and from Anchorage.
The increase in air traffic has not fully compensated for the lack of international travel. This year, tourists are almost exclusively from the United States, according to Discover Kodiak Executive Director Aimee Williams. People from other countries make up a significant amount of the visitors on the island.
Cruise ships — or lack of them — also have hindered Kodiak’s tourism comeback in 2021. Travel restrictions related to COVID prevented them from coming to Kodiak for the second straight year. Typically, those passengers patronize an array of businesses on the island when they are traveling: museums, local artists, retailers and tour guides all benefit in a normal year, Williams said.
It’s too early to tell just how many fishermen and hunters — a key component to the island’s tourism business — have returned to Kodiak this year. Anecdotally, fishing charters and wildlife tours operators say they have been busy.
Lee Robbins, owner of Adventures in Kodiak, says he has been booked every day since May and will have business through September. Boat operators such as Salmoncrazy Adventures and Fish N’ Chips Charters say they are still taking people out even as the summer comes to an end.
Seven-day non-resident sport-fishing licenses sold by Kodiak vendors dropped from 1,517 in 2019 to 549 in 2020. The number of annual non-resident fishing licenses sold by Kodiak vendors decreased from 337 in 2019 to 171 in 2020. One-, three- and 14-day non-residential sport fishing licenses sold by Kodiak vendors also fell by the hundreds. As for hunting, the non-resident hunting licenses sold by Kodiak vendors dropped from 289 in 2019 to 195 in 2020, according to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Hilsinger, with Russian River Lodge, is not disparaging the loss of her business. Right now, she is focusing on finding work at another bed and breakfast in town. She says she has the staff and loyal clientele; all she needs is a place to bring them.
She also has faith that tourists will come back to Kodiak.
“Kodiak’s got so much of what people want,” Hilsinger said. “They want to come see the bears. They want to come see the island — so much of what people want. Tourism is going to go forward. ... I think that people in Kodiak just need to think that. People need to go forward.”