It’s tough to put an exact number on how many tourists come to Petersburg every year, but it’s definitely in the thousands. The closest figure might be from the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program, which shows about 14,000 came in 2011. That number includes visitors by plane, cruise ship and ferry.
Dave Berg has operated Viking Travel, Inc. in Petersburg for 31 years.
“It looks like it’s going to be a better year for us,” Berg says. “We’re seeing a great increase in the number of independent visitors than we’ve seen in the past.”
“Independent travelers” is an industry term that means people who visit on their own outside of the large cruise ships.
“Most of the time they have Petersburg as part of an overall Alaska experience,” Berg says.
The phone lines in Berg’s office are busy these days. He’s dealing with people from all over the world. He says the increase in tourists is partly due to his business buying out Alaska Ferry Adventures in Homer. They were doing the same line of work—setting up travel packages for visitors. He’s now trying to get those people to come to Petersburg.
The main local draw is whale watching. There are also kayaking trips, the Bella Vista garnet mine, and the nearby Anan Bear Observatory. But Berg says it doesn’t have to be that adventurous. People just appreciate walking around the harbors and talking to fishermen.
“Just the small town atmosphere, the village that we have, the village feel of Petersburg versus places with the large cruise ships,” Berg says. “There’s a big difference in the experience that people have by coming to small towns.”
Marilyn Menish-Meucci runs the Petersburg Visitors Information Center.
“The independent traveler loves Petersburg,” Menish-Meucci says. “All the businesses here are locally owned. The only chain we have that is a national chain is Wells Fargo. And so that is huge to people because every time they buy an item in this town, the money stays in this town.”
Menish-Meucci says keeping it local is not only good for attracting tourists but also for local businesses.
Petersburg’s Chamber of Commerce Director, Cindi Lagoudakis, agrees.
“There’s more fuel sales, the gift shops see an increased business and I think some pretty steady clientele in the summertime from independent travelers,” Lagoudakis says. “The food businesses certainly see an uptick and in part that’s why some businesses are only open in the summertime as we have more people coming through town and can support those additional businesses and those dollars flow through town.”
It didn’t hurt that Yachting Magazine recently designated Petersburg as one of the best small towns in the country to visit.
“So, we’ve had a lot of people calling on the phone asking more questions about what Petersburg is like what we have to offer, questions about our harbors, and some really increased interest in what we have to offer here in Petersburg,” Lagoudakis says.
She says it’s often the small town charm that they’re after.
“What I hear again and again from folks that are visitors to town is how friendly the community is,” Lagoudakis says. “I think in part is because we don’t have so many people. There’s enough new people but not so many that you feel bombarded by it. And people will say hi to people in the street or they will offer to help you find something or tell you a little bit about why they like Petersburg and it makes it a very desirable place to visit and to live.”
Petersburg’s tourist season runs roughly from May 15 to September 15.
There will be one large ship– the Caledonian Sky—which is scheduled to be here twice but won’t be able to dock at the harbors because of its size. It carries about 150 passengers and will have to anchor out in Scow Bay or Frederick Sound.
A Gold Rush theme ship is scheduled to be here 12 times. Last year, it came up twice.