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Indian Country Taps International Tourism Market

After returning from ITB Berlin 2011 this week, leadership of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association told thousands of participants at the Reservation Economic Summit 2011 that tourism is good business for Indian Country.

In her keynote address to RES 2011, AIANTA board president Tina Osceola encouraged tribes to grow and expand their opportunities for tourism, including the international tourism market.

“What makes Indian Country unique is that we’re the only game in town that is truly authentic,” said Osceola, an executive officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. “When international visitors come here, they are investing in an experience for two or three weeks, and they are most interested in the American Indian experience. Where better to learn than from American Indians themselves?”

Osceola reported that AIANTA’s 27-member tribal delegation had just returned from promoting Native tourism at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest travel trade show attended by more than 165,000 tour operators, agents and visitors.

“The number of European people who want to touch, see and hear an Indian is amazing,” she said. “They are drawn to our music and art, our regalia, our stories, our songs. What’s most inspiring is that they are thirsty for knowledge about our people, and it’s wonderful to have other cultures interested in us.”

The delegation’s experience at ITB Berlin was overwhelming at times as they visited two rural elementary schools and shared Native cultural traditions with more than 200 German students. During the public days of ITB Berlin, thousands of people flocked to the American Indian section of the Discover America Pavilion.

“We’ve learned that German visitors are naturally attracted to American Indians, and they actually study about us in school there,” said Osceola. “For AIANTA to bring a delegation of seven tribes to Berlin to promote Indian Country and invite them to come visit us was groundbreaking.”

Sam Askew, Director of Resort Operations for Port Madison Enterprises and the Suquamish Tribe’s Clearwater Casino Resort, said the trip provided unparalleled exposure for their businesses.

“Germany is the number one international feeder market for the State of Washington, and the opportunity given to the Suquamish Tribe through AIANTA and ITB Berlin is invaluable,” he said. “For us, it means carrying the Salish culture to new lands; sharing the story of Chief Seattle with new peoples; and availing our luxury resort, casino, spa and golf club to over 180,000 new guests!

“We’re proud to have been part of this great endeavor, and to support all tribal tourism efforts not only as a means to tell an authentic story of our rich, varied heritage and cultures, but as a means to improve the lives of all sovereign tribal nations through economic diversification and development.”

AIANTA Executive Director Rebecca Martinez said one of AIANTA's goals in 2011 is to continue to educate and showcase the most original and deserving tribal tourism opportunities in America.

“To meet this goal, it’s critical that we continue to build our membership base to include all tribal communities, tribal entrepreneurs and industry professionals,” she said. “We believe that it’s imperative that tribes tell their own stories in their own way. AIANTA works with tribes to help them showcase their own stories and their own points of distinction."

Martinez said AIANTA's mission is made possible through the support of many individual tribes, corporations and other agencies. “We are looking to our industry partners to help grow Indian Country tourism by joining today. Benefits of membership include international marketing opportunities, member discounts on conferences and activities, training programs, a quarterly newsletter, and networking with fellow tourism professionals."

This was the third year AIANTA member tribes made the journey to ITB Berlin as a joint effort with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ed Hall, BIA Transportation Specialist and a cofounder of AIANTA, underscored the importance of tribes viewing tourism as economic development that can create jobs.

“Tourism is an opportunity for tribes to diversify their economies and support small business, artists, bed and breakfast operations, restaurants and hotels,” he said. “Tourism without people spending money is just traffic – all the surrounding towns get the funds generated from bringing tourists through our homelands unless we capture some of that market.”

Marketing is very important for tribes, and AIANTA can help, said Hall. “That’s one of the reasons we have the American Indian Pavilion at ITB Berlin. Tribes need to ask themselves what is needed to manage a tour operation on your own terms, and to present culture in relevant ways that are not exploitive. We don’t have to continuously present ourselves as historical figures – they want to know who we are today.”

Hall said the “indigenous niche” is an incredible opportunity for worldwide tourism. “The one thing we have is authenticity – our story and true history. We realize that we’re unique in the world, and that globally people look to indigenous peoples to provide real experiences of earth and our relationships to the land.

“The history of all indigenous peoples was written from the eyes of others, and tourism is an opportunity to tell our story on our own terms,” Hall added. “It’s also important for our children to see and hear that their cultures are relevant and important, not just the way it was presented in the history books.”

AIANTA’s delegation included the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Tulalip Casino Resort, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, N.C., the Suquamish Tribe and Port Madison Enterprises’ Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, Monument Valley Tours, Tatanka Oyate Trail Tours, and Keeper of the Sacred Tradition of Pipekeepers.

AIANTA is a non-profit association of Native American tribes and businesses organized in 1999 to promote Indian Country tourism. It serves as the voice for tribes in marketing tourism, providing training and educational resources, and serving as the liaison between Indian Country and governmental and private entities for the development, growth and sustenance of Indian Country tourism. For more about AIANTA, check out their site.