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Tourism On Tribal Land Sees Rapid Growth Post Recession

For Iowa resident Mary Zorn, the Grand Canyon was one of those “bucket list” destinations. But rather than head to the National Park, Zorn came to Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Reservation to see this natural wonder from the edge of what’s known as the Skywalk.

"I kind of concentrated on looking out first and then down so it was great," Zorn said. "It was a fabulous view."

This is a totally see through 70-foot-long glass bridge that juts out above the canyon to give visitors a clear view of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below. And the line at the ticket scanner is a long one, even though the pass to get out here is about $80. The tribe opened this attraction on the southwestern edge of the Grand Canyon about 10 years ago as a way to generate tourism revenue. Since then, more than 5 million visitors have passed through. But the Hualapai Tribe isn’t alone with its investment in tourism.

"There are 567 tribes across the country and 267 of those tribes, so nearly half, offer some sort of tourism-based business," said James Surveyor, a spokesman with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA).

He said tourism on tribal land is seeing a major post-recession growth spurt right now. According to AIANTA estimates, visitors spent more than $8.6 billion on tribal land in 2015, a number they expect will grow about 15 percent by 2020.

Surveyor said Europe, especially Germany, is a growing international market and China isn’t far behind. He added that as employers in and around tribal land, like the Navajo Generating Station, face uncertain futures, more tribes are giving tourism serious consideration as a way to both generate revenue and create jobs.

"It also gives us a point of pride as a community too," said Blessing Mc Anlis Vasquez, a spokesperson for the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community.

She said tourism is more than just an economic opportunity. It also gives the tribe an educational platform to tell their own story on their own terms.

"We noticed that people are interested in learning who we are," Vasquez said. "And sometimes that helps our youth kind of reignite that fire within them to tell that story."

But Ilona Spruce, the tourism director at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, added when sharing tribal culture with visitors there’s a balance required with being open and protecting cultural practices and beliefs.

"There’s quite a lot that we don’t share with the public," she said. "And that’s the only way we’ve been able to maintain our tradition and our culture since contact is because things just haven’t been shared."

Taos Pueblo specializes in cultural tourism. Spruce said the tribe allows visitors to explore their village, talk to local artisans, and even see certain traditional dances. But, she added, for some traditions they stop short of going into full detail about the intent behind them.

Spruce said while tourism is a sustainable revenue source, it also serves a larger purpose in her community.

She said officials hopes that by opening their community to the public like this the tribe can begin to break some of the most pervasive stereotypes about Indian Country.

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Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.