Arizona’s American Indian tribes look beyond casinos as they chart their economic and tourism goals.

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Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Valley News Issue: September 2017
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Blue Canyon on Hopi Land. Photo by Rebecca Rhoades.

About 25 members of the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association are gathered around a square of tables in a muggy conference room at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa during the Arizona Governor’s Conference on Tourism in July. James Surveyor, board secretary of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, is leading a discussion on Native American tourism.

“How many of you powwow?” Surveyor asks. No hands go up.

“How many of you have been asked where your teepees are?” More than half of the hands shoot up.

It’s these silly stereotypes that plague AAITA, a group founded in 1994 to “promote the development of American Indian tourism in Arizona while respecting the cultural integrity of all of the tribes,” newly elected AAITA president Blessing McAnlis-Vasquez says – 22 tribes in all, each with unique landscapes, people, attractions and goals. As president, McAnlis-Vasquez is tasked with leading the group in brainstorming new tourism initiatives and in implementing long-standing ones with an eye on marketing and economics.

“Hospitality is no stranger to us,” McAnlis-Vasquez says. “We have been welcoming people onto our lands for thousands of years, but we have never really thought about it as an opportunity for sustainability, or even revenue generation. So that’s a new mindset that we as Native people are trying to embrace... and think about welcoming guests to our land in a different way now.”

To that end, they’re beefing up existing visitor experiences (tours of the Hopi mesas and Hualapai Canyon), adding new ones (new Canyon de Chelly tours in the Navajo Nation; OdySea Aquarium, Octane Raceway and the ever-expanding Talking Stick complex in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community; the long-running renovation of the old Phoenix Indian School dining building and its transformation into a cultural center) and courting previously untapped travel markets. AAITA hosted eight journalists from Italy this past May in a press FAM (familiarization) trip that started in the Salt River Indian Community, wound through the Navajo Nation and then crossed into New Mexico. 

“That’s not something that would have happened five years ago, just because we didn’t know international travelers were interested in our stories or that we could bring media to our communities and tell our stories,” McAnlis-Vasquez says.

AAITA has also been aided by AIANTA, the only organization dedicated to advancing Native American tourism on a national level, and by Congress’ passage in September 2016 of the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (NATIVE) Act, which was sponsored by 11 bipartisan senators.

“The NATIVE Act is a mandate for collaboration” between the U.S. government and tribal entities, Surveyor says. It requires federal agencies with travel or tourism functions to improve travel data collection and analysis, support tourism programs in Native American communities, share indigenous heritage information in bilingual signage and improve access to public information and transportation programs, among other directives. Surveyor says the act should augment Native American tourism’s steady growth over the past decade – international visitors spent $715,000 on travel to Native American sites in 2005, which grew to $1.9 million by 2015.

Some tribes are more keen on using these developments to their advantage than others, says AAITA vice president Donovan Hanley. “A few of the tribes have started on tourism quite some time ago – decades ago – and have now honed a pretty good pace. Other tribes are looking to start new ventures,” says Hanley, who is also director of sales for Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise, which oversees four hotels, the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum and the Navajo Travel Center on Interstate 40. “The AAITA is unique in that we are mostly not driven by casinos, but more destination ideas. We all have casinos and we all want to promote those, but when it comes to tourism and especially cultural tourism, we want to make sure we’re well-represented and that the product we’re giving is going to be consistent and is going to be sincere and correct.”

Cultural correctness and sensitivity are central to AAITA’s tourism plans. Each member tribe wants its celebrations, rituals, land and way of life to be accurately communicated to visitors. It’s what distinguishes them from non-Native hucksters and Hollywood executives who traffic in those tired teepee and buffalo tropes.

“It’s funny [and] we’ve come to live with it,” Hanley says of these caricatures. “The pro about that is we love educating them: ‘You know, that’s more plains tribes, this is the Southwest. This is how we’re different, and this is what you can enjoy [here] now.’”