Workers are being hired and the finishing touches put on buildings in Hoonah as developers prepare for Hoonah's first season as a cruise ship destination.
The first of 33 ships will arrive in Hoonah May 11, inundating the town of 868 with about 2,200 tourists and bringing in needed tourism dollars.
The Point Sophia Development Co., a joint venture of Hoonah's Native corporation, Huna Totem, and Juneau-based guiding company KOMA Sales, has created a tourist destination called Port Icy Strait, which centers on a renovated cannery-turned-museum.
Huna Totem chief financial officer Bob Wysocki said the area will be ready to greet tourists by the arrival of the first ship, which will have to discharge its passengers via a lightering boat, because Hoonah doesn't have a cruise ship dock.
Wysocki said there's some refurbishing of buildings and landscaping left to do, but all the major elements are in place, including a hired work force of 40 people so far. The operation eventually will employ about 125 people for the first season, said Point Sophia President Johan Dybdahl.
"We've gotten applications from many, many more people. The majority are from Hoonah. Some will probably come from Juneau. Others may come from other communities like Gustavus," Dybdahl said.
Huna Totem Corp. is working with a $10.1 million loan backed by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has entered a five-year agreement pledging minimum payments to Point Sophia.
Dybdahl said some hires are former Hoonah residents who left when times got tough and are returning for the promise of new jobs. The city once had a robust timber and fishing economy, but now logging is all but dead and many fishermen have left their boats in the harbor.
He said workers coming in from other towns may encounter difficulties in finding a place to stay.
"There are some housing availabilities there. We've been talking with some people trying to provide a little more availability of camp-type housing at the old Whitestone Logging camp," he said.
Workers will be employed at the cannery and at the other destinations and excursions at Port Icy Strait, including a Native heritage center that will feature a museum of Hoonah history and performances of Tlingit song and dance. There will also be whale-watching and bear-watching excursions and tours of the old-growth and second-growth forests, Wysocki said.
It's not clear how many tourists Hoonah will see this season. Dybdahl said the average number of passengers on the three ships that will serve the area for the season is 2,200. But because there is no dock, the ships may carry fewer passengers. The city is trying to secure funding to build a dock.
City Administrator Jerry Medina said it's too early to tell how the community will handle the tourist season.
"I think most people are unsure right now, not quite sure what to expect. To have a cruise ship with 2,200 people come in obviously will have an impact on the community. That's almost triple our population," he said.
Medina said the city suspects it will find it necessary to step up certain services to accommodate the visiting population, but is grateful for the economic boost.
"It's something the community definitely needs. There's not a lot of industry with timber on the decline and fishing not as good as it's been in the past," he said.
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