By RACHEL D’ORO
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An Alaska Native village corporation that operates a popular cruise ship destination has launched a commercial consulting service for others seeking help developing their own cultural tourism ventures.
Huna Totem Corp. opened Alaska Native Voices on Wednesday. Huna Totem is the village Native corporation for Hoonah — a largely Tlingit community of 775 in southeast Alaska — and one of the front-runners of tribal tourism, a growing trend in Alaska and nationally.
The corporation is entering the 10th year of operating its Icy Strait Point, a long-closed salmon cannery near Hoonah that was converted to a tourism complex with offerings that include Tlingit heritage performances and nearby attractions such as nature tram rides, whale watching tours and a mile-long zipline with a 1,300-foot vertical drop. Huna Totem also is entering its 13th year of providing cultural heritage guides to visitors of Alaska’s Glacier Bay.
The corporation’s new consulting business is available to Native groups as well as communities worldwide wanting to establish tourism around their own cultures, Alaska Native Voices director Mark McKernan said. The cost will vary, depending on the extent of services sought, he said.
“This idea has been slowly developing over time,” McKernan said. “It became very clear that it was time to bring our experience out into the open and out to be made available to others.”
Hoonah struggled after the salmon cannery closure in the 1950s, followed by the gradual decline of fishing and logging industries. Then Huna Totem transformed the 1912 cannery buildings into the cruise ship port.
Since opening in 2004, Icy Strait has drawn more than 1 million visitors. Another 135,000 cruise ship travelers are expected to stop there this year. For Hoonah, the enterprise has been lucrative, bringing an enormous boost in sales taxes and creating scores of jobs for locals, officials have said.
Alaska’s off-road villages lack the luxuries seen along the cruise ship routes, however, and most don’t have a designated visitor coordinator. But an increasing number of small communities are exploring ways to set up their own brands of Alaska Native tourism.
Other Native organizations are well established leaders in cultural tourism. In the southeast town of Sitka, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska has operated a cultural tour program since the mid-1990s, offering dance, passing on knowledge of traditional herbs and plants, as well as demonstrations of wood carving, beadwork and other crafts to cruise ship passengers and other travelers, according to Camille Ferguson, the tribe’s former economic director.
Ferguson, now president of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, said perpetuating Native culture not only enhances local economies it also helps keep traditions alive.
More and more communities in Alaska are interested in developing their own ways to attain that double bounty, according to Ferguson, who spoke last month at a cultural tourism summit in Anchorage whose participants included representatives of Native communities.
“Tribes are looking at it as a way to get involved,” she said. “Alaska is not the only one. It’s growing all over.”