With the shutdown of the big forest industry players on Prince of Wales Island in the 1990s, writes Heather Ramsay, unemployed locals found themselves looking toward tourism as a way to stay on.
Over the years, many businesses like kayaking companies have sprouted up and faded away, as is the natural curve of small business, said tourism expert Karen Petersen at last week’s Chamber forum in Port Clements, where five delegates from Prince of Wales Island spoke to a crowd of Queen Charlotte islanders.
It doesn’t help that the state of Alaska isn’t very committed to tourism development. She said the tourism lobby has been taken over by a cruise industry association called the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
They aggressively market the inside passage and the cruise ship stops, along with the rail tours to Denali and cruise industry owned lodges.
In some ways this is a good thing, said Ms Petersen.
“Otherwise it would be hard to control numbers of visitors.”
Cherilyn Holter, who presented on culture at the April 8 forum, noted that the main street in Ketchikan is shut down during non-cruise season months. The shops are all owned by the cruise industry. “It’s creepy,” she said.
Islanders don’t want cruise ships to affect their communities in that way, but they also face other challenges. Every business markets itself independently, says Ms Petersen.
The island has 11 towns and some communities are three hours apart by mix of paved and gravel road.
“Every community has a different and unique personality,” she said. The communities are very individualistic and island-wide consensus is a challenge.
There is only one bank on the island and not every business is credit card savvy, but every community now has a place to stay, something that wasn’t true a few years ago.
“There is no big organized anything,” she said. There isn’t even a small bus to take tourists around like she has seen on Haida Gwaii. If a tourist arrives late at night on the ferry, they must have made arrangements to be picked up by cab or they are stuck on a dark, lonely road at the terminal.
There are a couple of big lodges and many floating fishing lodges sprouting up. Ms Petersen noted that these lodges are starting to market to the wives of fishermen as well, so more and more groups of women are exploring the islands, wondering what there is to do.
Most of the attractions on the islands are outdoors and off the beaten path. There are not many signs directing tourists to places or services, which has its good and bad sides. “Everyone can feel like they’ve discovered something,” she says. The lack of signage also forces visitors to interact with islanders.
She is envious of the Queen Charlotte Islands Visitor Centre and said there are no museums or visitor centres on Prince of Wales.
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