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Washington state helps focus on tourism

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OLYMPIA, Wash. ? Besides receiving copious amounts of rain, the state of Washington is renowned for lush landscapes, breathtaking coastline and towering mountains.

Each year millions wander up the Pacific Coast to experience the freedom of the natural surroundings and impossibly clean cities.

In a state where Northwest American Indian art is almost mandatory in the trimmings of hotels, residences and restaurants, it should come as no surprise that the state's tribes want to see some of the economic benefits from tourists who want nothing more that to walk under an old growth Douglas fir.

Over the last year the state of Washington, via the governor's office, in conjunction with Indian Affairs and the state Office of Trade and Economic Development, conducted a study on issues surrounding tribal tourism in the state. It produced a set of guidelines for tribes already pooling efforts to bring in visitors. The real story, however, is how this all came about.

Makah tribal member Donna Wilke, who sits on the Washington State Tourism Advisory Board, is credited by those close to the issue with bringing the plan together. Wilke said her tribe noticed the many tourists who came out to hike on tribal lands near Neah Bay on the Pacific coast.

"Our problem was that we already had the tourists but had no way of generating economic revenue from their visits," Wilke said.

The Makah tribe held a series of meetings and decided to make several reservation improvements. Among them was the construction of a state-of-the-art tribal museum, complete with an excavated traditional Makah whaling village from pre-Columbian times. The tribe also organized areas of the reservation into park-like units where visitors pay for daily recreational use.

The Makah used these revenues to make improvements to the popular Cape Flattery hiking trail so tourists would have easier access to the remote Pacific Coast area near Neah Bay.

When word got out to neighboring tribes on the scenic Olympic Peninsula, an organization was formed by several peninsula tribes to create the Olympic Tribal Tourism Board, that included, among others, the Quileute and Jamestown S'Klallam tribes. The tribes pooled resources to help plan for tourism in their part of the state.

Taking their cue from the Olympic Peninsula group, many of the state's tribes banded together to form the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians economic development and tourism subcommittee.

Wilke's work with the Olympic Tribal Tourism Board landed her a job with the state of Washington's Tourism Advisory Board where Wilke says she gets to "rub shoulders" with Washington lawmakers to make them aware of the issues surrounding tribal tourism.

Meanwhile the state of Washington had elected Gov. Gary Locke, who Wilke said was interested in tribal tourism and created an initiative based on the Olympic Peninsula group.

Wilke said she and the governor's Office of Indian Affairs then decided to see if a statewide study could be done to determine the main issues in developing a full-blown tourist trade for the tribes.

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"Basically what we came up with was a workbook to be used by Washington tribes who want to develop tourism," said Kimberly Craven in the governor's Office of Indian Affairs.

During the yearlong study process, representatives from 27 tribes were interviewed and it found that 18, several through gaming casinos, were actively involved in tourism of one kind or another.

The study also found that 17 of the tribes have a tourism component though only six tribes statewide now have specific development groups for tourism ? the Makah and Jamestown, Colville, Yakama, Tulalip and Muckleshoot.

The study also identified tribal sites, cultural and natural as well as regularly scheduled events tribes could focus on to bring in the tourist dollar ? casinos, tribal pow wows and other festivals and fairs, cultural ceremonies, natural resource activities such as camping and fishing and specifically designed events such as bike tours and fun runs.

Wally Jackson, the executive director and chairman of the Quileute tourism board said that his tribe is in the second phase of a half million dollar renovation of two tribally owned hotels to make them into deluxe $138-a-night cabins complete with Jacuzzis and other modern amenities.

Jackson said that the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians have received a 17-month $300,000 federal grant for the Department of Health and Human Services to, among other things, create a Web site and brochure for Washington state tribes interested in tourism.

However, there are still many problems that some tribes would have to overcome. The tribes on the Olympic Peninsula are blessed with location, an extremely important factor of the tourism trade. The Olympic Peninsula is home to Olympic National Park with breathtaking, snow-capped mountains and one of the few temperate rain forests in the world.

The area is also easily accessible from the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area and is a popular spot for urbanites seeking to get a little closer to nature.

As Wilke put it, the tourists were already there for Makah. It was easier for a tribe who already had the visitors to figure out ways to raise necessary funding for improvements.

Wilke said there are challenges, such as location and infrastructure, for many tribes to consider. The study concurs in its finding that many reservations may need some initial government financial assistance to make necessary upgrades for tourists.

Quileute's Jackson said that there has been some reluctance to provide government funding to tribes because of a general misconception that tribes don't pay taxes. He said Washington state tribes provide more than a billion dollars for the public coffers, a claim substantiated by the governor's office.

For now, Jackson said the Quileutes are busy at work with other tribes to get tourism projects under way and completed in the 17 months of initial funding. Though he said there is much work to do, he remains confident.

"It's a big project, but I think that we're ready for it. I know that we'll get it done."