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AIANTA at hub of blossoming Indian country tourism industry.

BIA grants $350,000 to help grow programs

By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff

CHEROKEE, N.C. - At least two details emerged clearly from the recent annual American Indian Tourism Conference: tourism is burgeoning in Indian country, and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association is at center stage to help nations develop, grow and market their tourism programs.

AIANTA is a nonprofit association of tribes, tribal businesses and entrepreneurs that organized in 1999 to create a network of American Indian tourism interests and identify cultural benefits, markets and tourism opportunities to enhance tribal businesses and economic strategies.

The association hosted its ninth annual tourism conference Sept. 16 - 19 at Harrah's Cherokee Casino & Hotel, where around 250 tourism professionals from around the country and as far away as New Zealand heard featured speakers, took part in high-level workshops, elected regional representatives, developed tourism policy recommendations and planned a survey of the industry in Indian country.

The conference also provided AIANTA with the perfect stage to announce its own progress: the hiring of its first executive director and the opening of a national headquarters at Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

Ed Hall, a member of the Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold and AIANTA co-founder, was the chair of the conference committee. A transportation specialist with the BIA's Division of Transportation, Hall has provided staff support for AIANTA.

While the BIA has no specific program or funding for tourism in Indian country, it has helped coordinate federal support for tribal tourism, providing an average annual grant of $20,000 to help fund AIANTA's conferences.

Last year, the agency saw the need to help AIANTA ''move to the next level'' of hiring an executive director and finding a permanent home, and seeded AIANTA's Founders Fund with a $35,000 grant, Hall said.

''This year, we were fortunate enough to be able to provide $250,000 towards these goals,'' Hall told Indian Country Today.

The agency provided an additional $100,000 to start the necessary process of collecting data, conducting an assessment of the state of the tourism in Indian country with outreach and strategic planning by AIANTA's board. The hope is that other funders will contribute to the study, Hall said.

''The potential is incredible for AIANTA and the American Indian tourism industry. The international tourism market is the most sought-after market, with cultural heritage tourism as one of the fastest growing sectors of the industry. Indian country is the desired destination of much of the international market and the focus is the culture, the community, the people.''

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Tourism provides Indian country with a unique prospect for education and economic development while strengthening nations, Hall said.

''I think there's an incredible opportunity to finally see our cultures as an essential element of our economic future. To see industry grow organically from a cultural base is new concept. Most destinations have been positioned by outside interests selling Indian country and defining how tribal cultures fit into the industry based on outside expectations. We can change the educational environment to include recognition of empowerment of culture as a force of development and industry,'' Hall said.

With a new home and new executive director, AIANTA is ready for the next phase, said AIANTA President Camille Ferguson.

''I'm just thrilled for us to reach the benchmarks that we set last year,'' she said. ''It's incredible to see that we've hired an executive director and we're establishing an office, and to see this organization heading in a new direction where we'll be able to assist tribes throughout Indian country on tourism, tourism industry news and resources. So to me this is a big year.''

Janice Hirth, who served on AIANTA's board, has been selected as the organization's first executive director. Hirth has worked for the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin since 1986 with a long resume in business management and administration, most recently as division director for the tribe's Internal Services and Enterprise Division.

''It's very, very exciting. I'm very honored to have been selected for this position. I've been around for some time working in tourism and hospitality for the tribe, so I've definitely seen the growth and opportunities that are out there that we just need to grasp so we can share it with all of Indian country,'' Hirth said.

Tina Osceola, Seminole and AIANTA board member and secretary, has set personal goals for the next year.

''For myself, as a board member, my goals would be to contribute as many resources as the tribe can afford to allow AIANTA to become the leader in defining Indian tourism and establishing a baseline to develop from in the industry,'' she said.

The Seminole Tribe is a member of the Founders Fund and a major contributor to AIANTA.

People have always visited Indian country, said Jana Prewitt, a part-time AIANTA consultant and former Interior Department employee. The idea is to organize the visits to maximize tribes' benefits and minimize their detriments, she said.

''One of the tag lines we've used is 'visitation without compensation is just traffic,''' Prewitt said with a laugh.

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