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Tribal tourism efforts pay off

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Native Americans need to capture a larger segment of the “Go, See, Do” tourist market.

“Tourism is a vital economic engine, and simply stated our tourism industry is a revenue generator that benefits us all, creating more than 170,000 jobs and bringing in nearly $20 billion to state coffers. The vitality of the tourism industry is critical – a key element – as we chart a course for the future,” said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in her address to the recent Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Scottsdale.

“We’ve seen our share of peaks and valleys during the past year, but we’ve been able to keep the tourism industry moving forward by hosting 37.4 million domestic and international visitors,” said Arizona Office of Tourism Director Sherry Henry. “While those numbers are down a bit from prior years, these lovely visitors generated billions of dollars in direct travel spending as well as another $2.6 billion in local, state and federal taxes, and nearly $18 million in advertising value in public articles generated about the state and its attractions.”

Hundreds of attendees and vendors participated in breakout sessions including one well-attended Cultural Heritage Tourism seminar on “How the Tribal Draw Benefits Arizona.” Lessons taught here are applicable to most tribal efforts to attract visitors and generate income.

“Visitor spending in heavily Native American populated Navajo County over the last 10 years has ranged from just under $180 million to just over $292 million,” according to Dean Runyon Associates in the June 2009 report on Arizona Travel Impacts to and through the state’s 15 counties. “While three-quarters of all travel spending occurs in the two most populous counties in the state. … travel is actually more important in non-metropolitan areas as a percentage of direct travel-generated earnings,” according to the report and Kiva Couchon, AOT’s communications manager.

Susan Guyette, author of “Planning for Balanced Development and Planning Cultural Tourism,” conducted the Indian breakout session on the whys and hows of enhancing cultural and heritage draws.

“The main theme is collaboration, working together within a tribe and with tribal neighbors. Everyone in the tourism arena has to work harder and smarter in a downturn and collaboration improves effectiveness and discovers low-cost or no-cost opportunities. Tribes have a great deal to offer if they can figure out how to put it all together in a way that benefits and is acceptable to the tribal community and works with state and regional efforts.”

She said this results in job creation, the preservation of tradition, and the enhancement of cultural pride when common ground is found to work together.

“We’re living in a baby boomer market that is interested in the arts and authentic educational experiences,” she advised, complimenting Arizona as one of only four states to have a formal tribal connection.

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That link is Native American Tourism Development Manager Dawn Melvin. “The outreach we’ve done is terrific. We are involved in projects working directly with tribes to collect photos illustrative of the beauty and diversity of what people can do on tribal lands. We have a trade program where we take Native people to trade shows to better understand how to deal with industry. If you do the thinking and planning, you can be successful in the implementation of programs to tell people what they will find when they come, see, and do on tribal lands.”

Statistics back up her optimism. In a study believed to be the first major examination of visitors to Native American tribes in Arizona and/or the Southwest, researchers found tribal visitors to be slightly older, having higher annual incomes, who stayed longer and spent more.

AOT’s first baseline visitor data compilation, “Survey of Visitors to Arizona Tribal Lands,” discovered some previously-unknown facts:

• Baby Boomers (over half between the ages of 46 and 65) dominated treks to tribal lands.

• Average annual household income ($102,000) of these visitors far exceeded national averages.

• 96 percent of tribal land visitors were domestic travelers, two-thirds from the Southwest with more than 55 percent having visited before.

• The satisfaction scale for visits to Arizona tribes was 9.2 where 10 was “totally satisfied.”

• Ballpark estimates of the total economic impact of visitors to Arizona’s tribal lands – direct spending plus indirect and induced impacts – resulted in a total economic impact of $391 million.

With that much potential revenue available to pursue, Melvin said: “Tourism development is an investment for the future.”

The 11th annual American Indian Tourism Conference – Building Native Tourism: Pathways for Change – will be held Sept. 21 – 23 in Santa Fe, N.M. (info@aianta.org). A cultural tourism workshop, “New Strategies for Tribal Tourism in an Economic Downturn,” is scheduled for Dec. 2 – 4 in the same city (rsuina@iaia.edu).