Alaska Native mother holds baby daughters hands in hers.

Cultural Tourism Businesses in Alaska

Alaska Natives have stewarded the lands of what is now called the state of Alaska since time immemorial. With hundreds of distinct Alaska Native tribes, one of the state’s greatest assets is its thriving indigenous cultural diversity. Yet, in 2021, accessing Alaska Native cultural tourism experiences is difficult for prospective visitors to the state.

As defined by the Alaska Native Heritage Center, cultural tourism businesses, “educate visitors about traditional Alaska Native knowledge and ways of life while providing for the perpetuation of culture by offering opportunities to experience and learn about Alaska Native peoples, cultures, and history.”

Examples of cultural tourism business industries and activities include:

● Hospitality: lodging, restaurants, tours, events;

● Museum and Cultural Centers: admissions, special speakers, artists at work, gift shops, cultural presenters;

● Art: galleries (in-person or online), artists, artist markets, carving sheds;

● Outdoor Recreation: trails, traditional village sites/areas, sports (zipline, quad bikes), fishing, wildlife viewing, chartered experiences;

● Transportation Experiences: bussing through parks/nature preserves, trams, flight tours.

Additionally, there are businesses owned or operated in partnership with non-Indigenous government entities. When operated by or in partnership with Alaska Native communities, these entities also align with the working definition of cultural tourism businesses.

Guiding Principles for Cultural Tourism Businesses

When building a cultural tourism business, business owners should strive to integrate these guiding principles wherever possible:

● Base all operations in Tribal values.

● Respect the community’s vision for cultural tourism.

● Pursue ownership by Indigenous individuals, companies or organizations.

● Develop a clear business plan.

● Give the Indigenous community being portrayed a meaningful voice and solicit feedback on the content of cultural programming, following community protocols.

● Carry a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their Indigenous community.

● Consult elders and culture bearers and pay them for their time and efforts.

● Use indigenous language, include phonetic spelling where appropriate, and may encourage guests to try using the language.

● Engage the next generation in learning and living the culture.

● Display indigenous art.

● Share their history and values according to their perspective, assuming visitors are interested in learning but have little background knowledge.

● Provide an excellent product or service.

● Employ Tribal members.

● Receive permission to tell stories by those who pass the story down.

● Provide meaningful benefits to the Indigenous people and community where they are based.

● Create experiential, educational, personal, participatory, and intimate experiences for visitors.

● Encourage interaction between Tribal members and guests.

● Clearly articulate their unique value proposition to their guests.

● Market using pictures showing the culture and visitors experiencing the culture first-hand.

● Operate in a sustainable manner that enables the local community and environment to thrive.

● Preserve that which is culturally sacred, and communicate their expectations of respect to guests and staff.

● Clearly communicate what guests can expect through their experience.

Why and How to Business Plan

At their core, cultural tourism businesses are founded upon indigenous values and implement guiding principles which spur the development of business activities that are in alignment with these values.

A business plan is a strategy that leaders can follow to better ensure visibility, sales, quality of goods and services, financial growth, and other factors relating to success. By creating a cultural tourism-specific business plan, businesses methodically ensure that all levels of the businesses are aligned with indigenous values and identify opportunities to implement the guiding principles (shared above) of successful cultural tourism businesses. The action of researching and drafting a plan allows the business the opportunity to hold a clear vision and to define what success looks like for that business. Done well, a business plan can act as a guiding compass and save critical decision-making time as leaders carry out daily business activities.

Cultural Tourism Business Planning Templates

ANHC has created both mini and full business planning templates to help you create a Alaska Native cultural tourism business plan.

Business leaders should use these templates as guides for conducting the necessary research and planning to inform how the business will operate. Each section is composed of questions that represent strategic themes frequently found to be addressed by strong cultural tourism businesses. Leaders should seek to answer each question to the best of their ability and as it best fits their unique business. Some sections may require additional research in order to find the answer or solution to the questions posed. The end result should be a separate business plan (without the prompts, instructions, or suggestions from this template). In general, the business plan writing can be broken down in the following steps:

1. Start with the numbers! Prior to starting the narrative sections, use a financial model to project out revenue and expenses for 1-3 years of the business operations.

2. Research answers to each of the following sections of the business plan, and draft answers within the template itself.

3. Once a draft is complete, transfer the answers to a separate document, without the prompts in this template.

4. Share the finished version with key stakeholders to inform them of the business’s vision and strategy, and note opportunities for improvement of the plan.

Update the business plan annually, semi-annually, or when significant changes to the business or market occur. Save new versions as separate documents so you are able to track the business’ growth over time.

Business Plan Mini Model

Business Plan Model

Social Enterprise Business Plan

Jewelry Business Plan

Driving Tour Business Plan

Additional resources including a financial forecast template and example business plans of cultural tourism businesses can be found here.

Resources for Business Planning

Many resources exist on the internet for business planning. A few Alaska specific resources include:

● The State of Alaska’s Business website, which has information on rules, regulations, and resources available from the state to support businesses.

● The Alaska Small Business Development Center provides free business coaching and many other resources.

● Spruce Root is a Community Development Financial Institution which provides business plan courses, one-on-one business coaching, and loans to early-stage or growing businesses.