The encircling rain forest has been all but chopped down, and logging jobs are nearly gone. Income from salmon fishing has plummeted, a casualty of global salmon farming.
Yet this tiny native village on an island in southeastern Alaska is suddenly swimming in cash.
If Marge Peterson, a village trinket-maker, does not make $400 after six hours of selling earrings made of fish-head bones, she thinks something is amiss. Sealskin moccasins, at $360 a pair, are disappearing as fast as village women can stitch them together. Bear tours ($90) are packed. So are humpback whale cruises ($79) and charter fishing excursions for salmon and halibut ($179).
Hoonah is feeling the financial rapture -- and fretting the cultural dislocation -- of being discovered by one of Alaska's fastest-growing industries: cruise-ship tourism.
Pale interlopers from the lower 48, smelling of sunscreen , wearing khakis with complicated pockets and videotaping everything in sight, are disembarking here this summer for the first time. With wonder in their eyes and cash in their wallets, they come off big white ships in herds of 2,400 to 4,000. They seem to find this village of rusted tin roofs, potholed roads and 860 Alaskans, most of them members of the Tlingit tribe, to be the Far North experience they had been dreaming about.
"This is more remote, more wild, more like you are out in the elements," said Don Albin, owner of Don's Furniture City in Three Rivers, Mich. His cruise was a gift from his wife, Louise, in honor of his 80th birthday.
"It couldn't be better," said Louise Albin, enumerating the joys of Hoonah and its surroundings on Chichagof Island, where people are outnumbered by brown bears (the big, often surly beasts that are called grizzlies in the lower 48). In a two-hour tram tour, she said they saw a brown bear, a bald eagle, several sea lions and a whole lot of spawning salmon.
Large cruise ships are not new in Alaska. For decades, the number of ships and passengers has been swelling along the state's southeast panhandle -- as the logging industry shrinks.
It is an eco-driven phenomenon that cuts against the resource-extraction grain of Alaska's political leaders, who continue to grumble about a 24-year-old congressional decision to create 104 million acres of parks and refuges across the nation's largest state. As former governor Walter J. Hickel once complained, "We can't just let nature run wild."
Yet wildness -- at least, wildness as perceived from the deck of a luxury cruise costing several thousand dollars -- will lure about 800,000 people to the Alaskan coast this year, injecting more than $700 million into the state's economy.
When the big boats are thick in the ports, the invasion transforms such smallish ports as Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka into crowded, kitschy tourist traps, where T-shirt hawkers and fast-food odors imbue the 49th state with the ticky-tacky feel of the Jersey shore. That ambiance has become a word-of-mouth downer for cruise-ship marketing.
Ergo, Hoonah -- the newest, rawest and, by far, smallest port of call for cruise ships plying the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska. It is a collaborative invention of a Juneau guide company and the local native corporation, Huna Totem.
Part of the reason this town needs tourism is that Huna Totem, in a rush to cash in on logging, hired contractors to make massive, environmentally damaging clear-cuts of forests on native-owned land on Chichagof Island.
Timber companies have since chopped down nearly all the marketable trees -- and laid off nearly all the Tlingits who had been working in the woods. Cruise ships drop anchor in Hoonah's harbor beside a steep and eroding clear-cut hill.
To prepare for the crowds -- which roll in at a rate of one ship a week and could increase in coming years to five a week -- a derelict cannery was refurbished as a museum-mall.
"We never could have pulled it off without the cooperation of all the people in the village," said Johan Dybdahl, who grew up in a cabin beside Hoonah's salmon cannery and is now president of the company that runs the destination.
Old machines once used to lop the heads off salmon have been painted, polished and bedizened with headless salmon and severed salmon heads (made of real-looking, odorless plastic.) There's a theater for Tlingit cultural performances. Nearby, you can use a credit card to attend a salmon bake or buy necklaces made of fishing hook swivels.
To the delight of people in this village -- where unemployment has been running at about 60 percent, the school has been hemorrhaging students and the municipal budget has been mired in red ink -- sales have been phenomenally brisk.
"There are very few places where you actually have a captive audience that wants to buy what you have for sale," Dybdahl said. "But here it is pretty much guaranteed that, when a ship is in port, 800 to 1,000 people will walk into your shop."
The town expects sales tax revenue to triple this year and to rise even more steeply as more ships arrive in coming years, said Jerry Medina, the town administrator. He said Hoonah will use the money to pay long-overdue bills, pave roads, extend water and sewer lines and buy a new firetruck.
The money has made a believer out of Kathy Mills Marvin, 45, a Tlingit craftswoman who lives in the village and whose first reaction when she heard about the coming of the cruise ships was disgust.
"I didn't want anything to do with it," she said. "I had seen all the tourists in Juneau, and I was worried that they would overrun us."
To mitigate this concern, a decision was made to impose a limit on cruise ships: no more than one a day (excluding weekends) during an 18-week season.
Marvin said she and most people in town now "feel pretty protected" from the influx, even as they make more money off it than they had thought possible. She said she cannot make baby bootie moccasins ($75) fast enough to keep up with demand.
In this village that has seen little in recent years but a rise in unemployment, there was widespread cynicism -- even as the cannery was refurbished as a cruise-ship destination -- that tourists would come.
"They didn't believe it until May 23, when the first ship came," Dybdahl said.
Now they believe. To avoid running out of baby bootie moccasins and deerskin gloves, as they have this summer, villagers say they will have to work all winter.