Village in charge of its tourism destiny

Metlakatla reaps benefits of managing visitor industry itself

Posted: Monday, November 11, 2002

Tourists making a port call at Metlakatla can count on dropping dollars in the Annette Island Tsimshian Indian village.

The southern Southeast town run by the Metlakatla Indian Community is the only reservation in Alaska, with its own courts and power to manage fish and game use. And unlike other destinations in Alaska where Outside tour companies often have a stake in spending on items from geegaws to glacier viewing, the village runs its own visitor industry.

Once tourists cross a tour ship gangway, they are met by village-owned buses and taken to village-run events such as Native dancing performances and art shows. Even walking tours come at a price.

"When they get off the ship, they have to spend money," said Patricia Beal, director of tourism for the Metlakatla Indian Community. Tourist numbers are expected to increase soon due to additional cruise-ship stops by a subsidiary of Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation.

In this village where nearly 80 percent of the 1,800 residents are unemployed, tourism dollars are welcomed.

But it wasn't always that way.

"Tourism actually started here in 1975 or 1976 when small groups would fly in from Ketchikan," said Beal, who heads a nine-member village tourism department. "The community didn't benefit because there was no money being spent in the community."

Tourists would come in, take a look around and leave. At best, a few carvings or some beadwork would be purchased from local artisans.

With commercial fishing and timber industries on the decline, village leaders in the mid-1990s looked to visitors as a source of revenue.

Metlakatla is one of the first Alaska Native villages to embrace tourism.

"We're really feeling the impact of no timber now," Beal said of the former sawmill town. "People have moved to work at sawmills in Washington and school enrollment is down."

Metlakatla always has taken a different approach to its destiny.

The community a dozen miles south of Ketchikan was founded under the leadership of the Rev. William Duncan in the 1880s, when more than 800 Canadian Tsimshians emigrated from British Columbia. Tsimshian leaders later opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, choosing instead to keep their reservation status.

Metlakatla takes a similarly independent approach to tourism, which has grown from 6,700 people in 2001 to about 8,700 this year. The community expects more than 10,000 tourists to visit via small cruise ships next summer, Beal said.

The jump will be due in part to a dozen new trips by Glacier Bay Cruiseline. The Native-owned company will have a dozen "culturally focused" trips next year to Metlakatla, Wrangell, Petersburg and Hoonah, a Tlingit community of about 900, 40 miles west of Juneau on Chichagof Island.

Huna Totem Corp., Hoonah's village corporation, and Juneau-based Koma Sales Co. recently announced plans to build a new dock, improve an old cannery and build a Native cultural center to attract cruise-ship tourists.

Gary Droubay, Goldbelt president, said the cruise company has never focused on the many Alaska Native villages in the region.

"Here we are a Native corporation and we found on our comment cards that people weren't getting enough cultural information. That's when we decided we better get with it," Droubay said.

Seven-day trips will cost about $2,500, and will include kayak trips, Glacier Bay tours and shore excursions to the two villages as well as Petersburg and Wrangell.

Alf "Windy" Skaflestad, mayor of Hoonah, said until now, tourists were not exactly welcomed in the village.

"There has been a shift in attitude," Skaflestad said. "I'm 66 years old and I was born and raised here and there are still a few hard-headed people who want to keep the town the way it is or the way it was and keep the door shut.

"Anytime we can put people to work and get a little money coming into the town, I'm all for it and don't see anything wrong with it," Skaflestad said.

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