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Come on over, the water ride's free

Kitsap County has plenty to offer visitors year-round, tourism officials say. And between now and March 31, 2009, visitors can get a free ferry ride to come discover Kitsap for themselves.

The Kitsap Peninsula Vistor & Convention Bureau has partnered with Kitsap hoteliers to reimburse the cost of a ferry ride for tourists who book their reservations through www.freeferry.com.

The reimbursement is offered as a carrot on a stick to spur tourism during the fall and winter.

"(Tourism historically takes a bit of a dive after the fall season," said Grant Griffin, executive director of the Kitsap Peninsula Visitor & Convention Bureau. That dive lasts through March.

So far this year, the occupancy rates — the number of hotel rooms booked during a set time, like a calendar month — have dropped about 5 percent from last year.

Statistics gleaned from hotel rooms throughout the county point to 62.6 percent of hotel rooms being booked compared to 66.2 this time last year, Griffin said.

"That's the reason we're doing this promotion," he said. "We've got to get those numbers back up again. (Tourism) really is the lifeblood of what we're all about."

The tourism dollars, however, are slightly up as the average daily rate hotels charge in Kitsap has gone up, increasing the revenue brought in for each room. On average, hotels are charging $94.02 per night, compared to last year's $85.93.

"The revenue is up, but the occupancy is down. That's not a good trend," Griffin said, adding hotels can increase revenue by raising rates.

Some hotels are appealing to visitors' pocketbooks by offering affordable prices.

"At this date and time you'll find most hotels are offering really good rates this time of year," he said.

In the center of the county, curiosity about Kitsap abounds, according to Silverdale Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darla Murker.

The local chamber of commerce is often one of the first contacts visitors make when considering a getaway or a move to a new area. Because Silverdale is an unincorporated area, visitors often walk into the chamber on their quest for a city hall.

"We have a lot of traffic. They come here looking for city hall. When they can't find it, they come in here," she said.

The Silverdale chamber tracks the numbers of people who inquire about the area and use that statistic when asking for a share of the county's lodging taxes. The lodging tax dollars support tourism in Kitsap.

This time of year the tourism varies, but there's less than in July and August.

"There's nobody pulling up in RVs," Murker said.

Even though the visitors are fewer, the interest in the county is always present.

During the peak tourism months, the Silverdale chamber will field, on the average, 125 walk-ins, 60 phone calls, 20 e-mails and 30,000 Web hits a month. In winter months, the numbers aren't much lower.

The Bremerton Area Chamber of Commerce tells a similar story.

"We haven't seen much of a decrease (in tourism), but we hear the doom and gloom," she said.

What sets Bremerton apart is the Navy presence and the city's revitalization efforts, including the Kitsap Conference Center at Bremerton Harborside.

"A lot of people like coming to Bremerton to see what the revitalization is like," she said. "For us it seems pretty steady here."

In fact, so far this year the Bremerton chamber has sent out 800 more information packets than this time last year.

The numbers attest to the Bremerton chamber's beefed up efforts in spreading the news about the town.

"We've been a lot more aggressive in getting information out," Klatman said.

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