OUZINKIE -- Welcome to Ouzinkie. Tourists wanted.
For three years, Island Heritage Tours, a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Spruce Island Development Corp., or SIDCo., has been working to develop a tourism industry on Spruce Island, home to the village of Ouzinkie, population 161.
Two weeks ago, Island Heritage invited members of the Kodiak business community to experience a complimentary tour and provide input on how to improve the program.
Invitations were sent across Kodiak, and the tour began auspiciously with good weather on a sunny Saturday -- but only two people showed up.
That's an example of the struggle SIDCo. has encountered as it tries to build tourism from scratch in the middle of the worst economic conditions in 80 years. Tickets for the daylong tour that includes transportation to the island, lunch and a guided walking tour cost $200 per person.
"We were supposed to be up to 90 people a summer, and I think we only got about 30 last year, and we've had even less this summer," SIDCo. director Sharon Anderson said. "For it to be sustainable, we need about three people on one of the charter boats for it to be workable."
SIDCo. didn't overestimate interest -- it drafted its business plan concept in 2007, before the current recession began.
SIDCo.'s mission is to revitalize Ouzinkie economically, and in its business plan, the company identified tourism, fishing and transportation as the economic foundation of the community. While fishing and transportation already existed in some respects, tourism did not.
"In 2008, we wrote an Administration for Native Americans grant through Health and Human Services for Island Heritage Tours as a startup business," Anderson said. "Starting in 2008 fall, we started turning a business plan into a business."
In the first few years of Island Heritage, employees had to climb obstacle after obstacle. The original plan involved using local charter boat operators for tours, but there weren't enough with the appropriate licenses and insurance.
Then Island Heritage had to draft training manuals for local tour guides.
"It was wide open," Anderson said. "We were trying to figure out what tour product we were selling."
And then there was the weather. In bad conditions, rough seas made it difficult to get to Spruce Island. Even good conditions presented problems.
"If it's a nice weather day," Anderson said, "sometimes people don't want to come over, or the people we're employing wanted to go out and have some fun. And we didn't (get that many) nice days last year."
This summer has been different. Kodiak has enjoyed unusually clear and warm weather, but the weather luck hasn't translated into tourism luck. Fuel prices have climbed, and the village's only store has shut down.
Despite those obstacles, Island Heritage has streamlined its approach and is offering tours at least once per week. On the Saturday the Mirror visited Ouzinkie, the party was picked up at Kodiak's transient float by charter boat operator Willis Garner, who explained sights along the way as well as a little about Ouzinkie.
"It's changed dramatically in the last year, last few years," Garner said. "There's a bigger airport, more roads, better maintained dock."
At the dock, the party was met by guides Melodi Anderson and Sierra Panamarioff and Nancy. Each explained the history of Ouzinkie and how they came to be in the village.
"I remember when they turned the electricity off at 10 p.m. I remember when the phones came. I remember the first time I had tacos," Melodi Anderson said.
Nancy, in Ouzinkie for just the summer, talked up the village with the zeal of someone experiencing it for the first time.
"I get to do things I never thought I'd ever be able to do," she said. "I've met so many wonderful people since I've been here."
As the party toured Ouzinkie's boardwalks, Melodi explained Island Heritage's marketing approach.
"Our advertising is heavier in the Outside market and internationally," she said.
The tour is featured in the Alaska Travel Guide, the Anchorage Travel Guide, in a few travel magazines and in various brochures.
"We have a lot more people calling because they saw our phone number," she said.
The problem is translating those calls into tours, one person on the tour said. Like Kodiak, Ouzinkie is a destination visitors have to be enticed to stop at rather than a place they visit on their way to somewhere else.
Island Heritage has taken steps to make the process easier, including conducting tours on the spur of the moment for large groups that express an interest and a willingness to pay.
"If you have a large enough group, we'll make any changes you want," Melodi said.
At the village cultural center, the tour group was met by Skyler Anderson, who organized a special performance by Ouzinkie's Alutiiq dance group. Anderson explained that the dance group performs for each tour group that comes through the village, but it can be difficult to coordinate.
"Different numbers of kids are available at different times," she said.
"We featured Island Heritage to center on the dancers," Melodi said. But the death of the dance group's former leader was a setback to the original tourism plan, and Skyler, who graduated from Ouzinkie School's 12th grade this spring, took over.
"Some of the key people we wrote the plan with are deceased or ill," Sharon said, "so we couldn't use them the way we thought we could."
Island Heritage's Administration for Native Americans grant ends in September, shortly after the tourist season, but the tourism company will continue to operate, Sharon said, and is making plans for next summer. What form the tours will take, in order to provide a sustainable income, is still unclear.
"We kind of have to look and see," Sharon said. "Do we just do groups, do we do kayaking tours, how do we get our clientele?"
One potential audience may already be present in Kodiak, said Daren Muller Sr., a member of the SIDCo. board of directors. "We are trying to target the families of the fishermen who are coming if they're driving by; they can drop them off (in Ouzinkie)."
There's also hope that the Alaska Marine Highway System may make Ouzinkie a regular stop, opening another route to tourist dollars.
"The Tustumena has been testing depths and our bumpers," Melodi said.
But with the Tustumena scheduled for retirement in the next few years and its replacement not yet available, the future of that service is questionable.
The ultimate goal is to keep things moving forward, said several people involved with the tourism project. Skyler, quoting her uncle, former Ouzinkie Native Corp. CEO Andy Anderson, said, " 'I want things to stay as they are, but they have to move forward.' I think if he were here today to see the tour, it's something he would like."