The number of tourists that visit Haines each year is trending upward. But some of the same qualities that bring visitors — and their economic potential — to Haines in the summer, drive them away in the winter.
It’s the time of year when Haines slows down: cruise ships are gone, and local restaurants and businesses are closing their doors.
Carolann Wooton is the director of tourism in Haines. She said summer visitors are key to the town’s economy — and their numbers are rising.
“The bright spot in our economy in the Southeast is tourism,” Wooton said. “It’s definitely increasing. From all intents and purposes, they expect it to continue to increase. People want to come here.”
And they do: if every cruise ship that came this summer was full, it would mean 72,000 people docked in Haines. According to Wooton, approximately 54,000 people came by ferry, 36,000 drove over the Canadian border, and 9,000 arrived by plane.
Wooton said the number of visitors is on track to match or exceed last year’s count. And with a new cruise line making more than 40 stops in Haines next summer, she expects 2018 to be even bigger.
That has a big effect on Haines’ economy. According to a 2011 McDowell report on Haines’ boat tourists, the average cruise passenger spends $85 in Haines. Fast ferry passengers spend $135.
Wooton said visitors are drawn to Haines for the same reason that their buying power has such a big effect on the economy: Haines is small, and what it offers is limited. But she’s quick to say that’s not a bad thing.
“We’re real Alaska. They’re really looking for the intimate, local, cultural experience . . . in a smaller more intimate setting. I think that’s what sets us apart. It’s our biggest selling point,” she said.
But while Haines’ small size and limited options charm visitors in the summer, in the winter those same qualities can keep visitors — and their economic potential — away.
“When all our restaurants close in the winter, you know, it’s definitely a conundrum,” Wooton said. “You want to have restaurants and places of business open for people to come visit. But at the same token, they need visitors in order to have a reason be open.”
Mary Jane Sebens has owned and operated Mountain Market year-round for 27 years. She knows the catch-22 well.
“Well, I think it’s the chicken and the egg. More year-round, steady, income would be nice for Haines. I think people would stay open longer if they knew there was something they could depend on,” she said.
Sebens says Mountain Market can only stay open because it’s multipurpose. It’s a cafe, coffee roaster, grocery, and liquor store.
“When I just had groceries,” she said, “I felt like I wasn’t going to make it.”
But as visitor numbers continue to rise, Wooton hopes there’s room for change. She’d like to see Haines become a year-round town.
Others see new potential in the winter months, too. Lee Robinson and his wife Darcy moved to Haines to operate the Rusty Compass cafe. They opened in May, and are preparing to stay open for their first winter. Robinson knows it’s slightly risky.
“I think there’s kind of a word of caution: ‘Hey — if you’re going to stay open, be careful,'” Lee said. “But I really see a lot of potential in Haines. And it’s hard to believe quite honestly there are only a couple restaurants open in the winter. So we’ll do our part and try to give people a choice.”
And at least a few visitors are grateful. French tourists Angela and Maxim drove to Haines, hoping to try the good restaurants and pizza they’d heard about — only to find them closed.
“But we are not disappointed,” Angela said. “We knew that it was not the season anymore and that a lot of things should be closed. We didn’t want to be here when all the tourists are here. That’s also part of the game.”
Even without pizza, they got a taste of the authenticity that makes Haines appealing, to visitors and locals alike.