- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

YAKUTAT, Alaska (AP) - For the hundred or so years cruise ships have been visiting Southeast Alaska, the residents of Yakutat haven’t been so sure about them. But this summer, prompted by a declining population and economy, the town will come out in force to welcome two shiploads of tourists.

“Historically Yakutat has been unwelcoming to cruise lines, and so this is a big step,” said Yakutat Chamber of Commerce President and city assistant finance director Martha Indreland. “I think Yakutat has gotten into an economic crisis, so to speak, and the community is desperate enough now to be open-minded.”

“We have to start looking at cruise ships,” said Yakutat assembly member, Yakutat Chamber of Commerce Vice President, and co-founder of the Yakutat Cultural Association Paul Harding. “But … while we want to invite different forms of business, I think we want to be sensitive to the lifestyle we have here - to the environment and ecology that we have here - so for us I think there’s this balance now. Money versus quality of life.”

Harding acknowledged that trepidation about cruise ships and how they’ll affect the town remains in the community. This year is meant to be a trial run. SilverSea, which Harding describes as “a boutique business,” will use Zodiacs (inflatable boats) to bring up to 120 passengers to shore, as Yakutat doesn’t have a cruise ship dock.

Once they’re in town, one group of passengers will stay for four hours on July 11; the other will stay for six on July 28.

The company has also scheduled two boats in 2016, and potentially four in 2017, said tourism committee coordinator Sarah Israelson.

Once they’re there, they’ll get a window into life in Yakutat.

“What we’ve come to realize in talking with the cruise line is they’re actually looking for kind of a ‘day in the life,’” Harding said. “They want to get a sense of what is it like to be here.”

Members of the One People Canoe Society hope to row out to meet the tourists as they arrive, said tourism committee coordinator Sarah Israelson. (They’re currently building a canoe.) Yak-tat Kwaan representatives and community members will also be there to greet them.

Tourists will be treated to a performance by the Mount Saint Elias dancers, and organizers plan to offer walking tours of the fish processing plant, Yakutat’s Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall - which was constructed almost 100 years ago - and the Alaska Warbird Museum in progress. (For more information on that, see April 29’s CCW.) Residents may do a gillnetting demonstration, give the tourists a glacier tour by plane, or go to the Situk River and educate them on how fish are caught, skinned, and eaten, Harding said.

Residents also want to highlight the uniqueness of their train, Israelson said. Yakutat has a train - and tracks converted into a walking path - that was used to transport fish from the Situk River to the cannery.

“We’re really trying to highlight that, because it was so unique to the area,” she said.

Local carver Fred Bemis is also working on a new totem pole, she said, aiming to complete it by June. They’d also like to show the tourists some of the work of Shoki Kayamori (alternative spellings are Soki and Seiki) a Japanese photographer who lived in Yakutat from around 1910 to the early 1940s.

Most of the land surrounding Yakutat is Forest Service land, so there are some restrictions they’re trying to figure out how to navigate. They won’t, for example, be able to take tourists to Harlequin Lake, Israelson said.

Some concerns the city is handling are basic - bathrooms, for example. Where will 120 visitors go? Also, with an average cruise ship passenger around age 55, how will they accommodate different degrees of mobility?

“It’s a lot of work to try and take care of 120 people for four hours,” Indreland said. “It’s taking months to prepare for it.”

“We’re definitely trying to give them as many options as we can,” Harding said. “We want to make sure we have a really great strategy in line, so in the future if we get more tour boat visits, we have something in place.”

“Right now, it’s a first date for us,” said Indreland.

They’re not collecting a head tax for disembarking passengers this time around (they do collect money annually because of the ships passing through their waters, which helps fund their emergency response teams and equipment - each year, Yakutat responders help at least a few passengers, Indreland said.)

In the long term, Harding hopes cruise ships help develop Yakutat’s ecotourism, jump-starting businesses that might take people fishing, camping or hunting.

“The biggest resource we have right now is nature. That’s our forte, that’s what we have around here,” he said.

He sees this first cruise ship year as an investment in the future, and hopes that not only the ships, but also the passengers, will return past 2017.

“We’re hopeful that the tourists get to have a chance to see the amazing history that is here. There are a lot of amazing things that have happened here and helped shape the area,” Israelson said. “We do have a lifestyle here that we want to keep to, but we’re looking forward to sharing the beautiful place that we live in a responsible way.”

Find out about the train at www.yakutat-southern.org.

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