When the river is crowded, Fred Meyer is packed and traffic is backed up, it’s a sure sign that tourist season on the Kenai Peninsula is in full swing. And when the tourists visit, they need a place to stay.
Some travelers are choosing to shift away from the traditional route of a cruise ship or hotel room and utilizing the vacation rental website, AirBNB, which touts itself as a place to connect “people to unique travel experiences.”
Since coming to the area in 2010, Airbnb has played a role in the peninsula’s tourism, with the company hosting 730 active listings from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, according to Airbnb Press Secretary Mattie Zazueta.
Through these 730 active listings, a total of 15,700 guests stayed in the area last year. These numbers do not include similar vacation rental websites to Airbnb, such as VRBO or HomeAway.
“My favorite part, really, is meeting all the people and sharing the area with them,” said Dan Duke, who has multiple listings in Kenai on Airbnb and has been using the website for a little more than a year. “Just being able to share the peninsula with people, point them in the right direction of where to go because we know the area so well, we get to have a lot of fun.”
Duke has a two-bedroom basement suite, a one-bedroom loft and a retro travel trailer listed on Airbnb, where he highlights the locations access to the beach and the Unity Trail, a paved bike and pedestrian path that connects Kenai and Soldotna. According to Duke, though, not all visitors are tourists.
“This summer, we’ve had people from 19 states and five different countries and they are here for all different reasons, not just fishing,” Duke said. “We just booked a guy today whose moving from the east coast and needs a place to stay while he gets set up. It’s not just tourists — we get physical therapists and nurses that will stay with us for longer periods of time.”
According to Airbnb’s website, the average price per night for a listing within the Kenai Peninsula Borough is $162, with listings ranging from a room in a Soldtona home to a small cabin in Cooper Landing.
Courtney Stanley of A Cabin by the Pond off of Funny River Road says that, although she’s only been using Airbnb for two months, she’s noticed a high prevalence of international users booking her cabins through the site.
“I would say half of our bookings have been international,” Stanley said. “I would take away that they are booking with Airbnb because it’s easier for them. It’s set up so they… don’t have to worry about the things that would be challenging when they don’t speak English.”
The interface, Stanley said, is also a huge plus when working with Airbnb as a host. Through A Cabin by the Pond, which Stanley bought with her husband earlier this year, Stanley has worked with several third-party travel sites, including Airbnb.
“Something I really love about Airbnb is that they allow the host, business owner, to rate the guest and to provide feedback on the guests,” Stanley said. “So we can screen the people we’re letting into our homes. None of the other sites I’ve used let you do that.”
Airbnb, though, isn’t holding on to too much of the Alaska tourism market, according to the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program released in May of this year.
In 2016, Airbnb made up 4 percent of the total internet-based planning done by Alaska tourists, compared to the 11 percent that utilized hotel, lodge or RV park websites, or the additional 11 percent that utilized tour company websites.
In the study, though, a new type of lodging called “vacation rental” was added, to distinguish a traveler who stayed in a private home as a renter through a site like Airbnb, or as a friend or family member.
In 2016, vacation rentals made up 3 percent of lodging, with cruise ships holding on to the majority of visitors at 57 percent and hotels or motels housing 37 percent of visitors.
Although the impact may be small on the overarching tourism in Alaska, hosts on the Kenai Peninsula are seeing an average income of $4,500 per year, Zazueta said.
Impact and profit, though, seem to be increasing as more and more residences are taking on the role of Airbnb vacation rentals.
In Homer, Melissa Schuler acts as a host at Vista House Bed and Breakfast, which completes all of its bookings through the Airbnb platform.
“Well, we’re brand new,” Schuler said. “And we’re building up reviews…. We’ll definitely get more bookings next year as people start to plan their trip in the fall or the winter. This year, we’re just getting set up around May, but we’ll be permanent throughout the year and next year should be better.”
Reach Kat Sorensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.