Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point is positioning itself as one of Alaska’s top cruise ship destinations. Roughly one in three cruise ship tourists will visit the entertainment complex on the outskirts of the small Southeast community next year.
Executives from Norwegian Cruise Lines visited Hoonah to participate in the groundbreaking of a second cruise dock designed for the company’s two megaships deployed to Alaska.
Senior Vice President Howard Sherman says that Hoonah’s beautiful setting and thriving Alaska Native culture is what convinced his corporation to invest.
“You can’t buy that authenticity,” Sherman told the dozens of school children, elders and community members assembled at the site. “You can’t build it, you can’t put it in a T-shirt shop, you can’t put it in a jewelry store so we are so excited and so honored to be a part of this and I thank you.”
Tlingit elders blessed the site and retold the story of the town’s founding. Two centuries ago, their ancestor’s village was displaced by advancing glaciers in what’s now Glacier Bay National Park.
As Frigid winds blew in from the northwest, elders interpreted it as a sign of approval from the village’s ancestors.
Hoonah elder Kenny Grant says there are deep ties to the forested uplands that will be the site of a cruise ship dock starting next year.
“To us this land has a spirit,” Gray said as elders murmured “Gunalchéesh” approvingly. “And we’re going to treat it properly.”
The 500-foot floating dock project is a partnership between Norwegian Cruise Lines and Huna Totem, the community’s village corporation. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed. The arrangement is possible because the city approved a 25-year lease for the project.
The name “Hoonah” doesn’t appear on cruise ship schedules. On promotional maps it’s Icy Strait Point that passengers will visit. That’s the result of shrewd marketing by Huna Totem Corporation, which transformed a defunct seafood cannery into a seasonal entertainment complex. Since 2004 it’s expanded rapidly and now features a zip line, rope course, restaurant and brewery.
A controversial purpose-built cruise dock at Icy Strait Point was added in 2015. This second dock will be about a half-mile further from town, creating a tourist exclave away from downtown Hoonah.
Early on, cruise visitors numbered in the thousands. But this season will bring a projected 267,000 passengers on 137 ships.
The second dock adds even more capacity with 192 ships scheduled to call in Hoonah. By next year some 408,000 cruise ship passengers are expected making the small community among the top Alaska cruise destinations of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan.
That makes some Hoonah elders at the ceremony uneasy.
“You see our town’s only 800 people. So you get 5,000 people on this ship and 5,000 people on that ship — that’s 10,000 people,” said Stuart Mills, who works as a seasonal bear viewing guide.
He’s worried that bringing in too many people could dilute what Hoonah has to offer.
“We’re going to have buses running everywhere and people running everywhere,” Mills said. “It might of kinda hinder us because of the fact that won’t have enough excursions for all the people to do what they want to when they come here.”
The village corporation is mindful that feelings are mixed here. But it’s difficult to gauge public sentiment. When the project was announced in December, the village corporation said it would hold public meetings in the winter. That didn’t happen.
Huna Totem CEO Russell Dick said Wednesday he still plans to do public outreach later in the year. And he told an assemblage of community members in Icy Strait Point’s restaurant that history won’t judge his organization by its profits.
“Because if it did, we’re no better than any other company out there,” Dick told community members. “But I do truly believe that history will judge us on whether we create those economic opportunities for our shareholders and whether or not we ensure a vibrant and strong culture as we go forward.”
The first of 137 cruise ship visits to Icy Strait Point is scheduled on May 9.