Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Like so many other industries, tourism suffered when social gatherings became hotspots for the spread of COVID-19.

Anthony Rodman, Cherokee and Osage, who is acting director of the Interior department’s Office of Indian Economic Development, testified at a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on May 12. He said the economic impacts of the pandemic on tourism in Indian Country are still being tallied but “many reservations were closed to visitors, travel stopped, and tribal offices were shut down for extended periods of time.”

CEO Sherry Rupert, Paiute and Washoe, of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, said tribal casino closures alone cost 296,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in revenues.

“These lost jobs and decimated gaming revenues have had a dramatic and far-reaching effect, crippling Native American economies well beyond tourism … devastating programs such as health and safety, infrastructure, education and food programs across Indian Country,” Rupert said at the Senate hearing.

The disappearance of tourists from Alaska had a profound effect on Robert McCoy-Apangalook, a Siberian Yupik man also known as Utuqsiq. He spoke at an April 16 press conference set up by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

Utuqsiq said about 10 years ago he turned from construction and other work to full-time carving wood and ivory.

“Carving started to show more promise and I truly enjoyed it with every bit of my being,” Utuqsiq said. He gained support from fellow artists, shops, galleries and museums.

When the pandemic hit, “I was worried, but naive to the idea that the pandemic would have such a devastating impact on my life and how I make a living,” Utuqsiq said.

“I believed that I had already solidified my place and presence in the Native arts market, strong enough to even survive a pandemic, but I was wrong, with the cancellation of cruise ships and fear of travel that most experienced,” Utuqsiq said.

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His sales dropped by 80 percent. “It became very tough and scary being new parents, if we were able to provide a roof over our children's head, let alone food on the table. We fell so far behind on bills that we were faced with an eviction notice last fall. I had never felt like such a failure and certain I had made the wrong decision, choosing my art as a career,” Utuqsiq said.

“Fortunately, I found a new, new-to-me market via social media and a rebirth in support that has allowed me to regain my confidence as an artist,” he said.

Still, Utuqsiq said if tourism doesn’t pick up this summer, a lot of artists will turn to other fields, and traditions will decline. He’s taken up teaching his craft to others “so that it may at least live beyond my generation,” he said.

Preserving traditions is one benefit of cultural tourism, said Emily Edenshaw, Yup’ik and Inupiaq. She is president and CEO of the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, which offers cultural programs to help visitors learn about and understand Alaska Native cultures. Speaking at the same press conference as Utuqsiq, she said cultural tourism involves museums, cultural centers, gift shops, and more.

“It can be Native artists, storytellers. It can be Alaskan excursions like hiking and walking tours, cruises, and guided fishing and hunting. It could be unique experiences with Native food and art. In its simplest form, cultural tourism throughout Alaska creates the space for the Native community to learn more about our cultures and to share not only our traditions and our stories, but our values and our knowledge with others,” Edenshaw said.

She said the 51 percent of visitors who experience cultural tourism “stay longer and they spend more money,” which benefits all Alaskans, Edenshaw said.

She said cultural tourism will also build a stronger, more equitable, and more resilient Alaska. “It’s also about righting wrongs and telling the full truth of who and what Alaska is. I'd like you to understand our collective Indigenous experience,” Edenshaw said.

“For centuries Alaska Natives have endured with resilience an existence at the receiving end of unjust policies, grounded in the erasure of our languages, histories, and cultures. It's essential to talk about our history because the reality is that our lived experience has been consistently left out of the story told about Alaska. And much of our cultural tourism work today is grounded in addressing this deficit and to tell a more complete story,” Edenshaw said.

Scenery in Many Glacier area in Glacier National Park, Montana. Aug., 31, 2015 (Photo by Jerry and Pat Donaho, courtesy of Creative Commons.

“Today, Alaska is often viewed as the last frontier, a wild place, untouched, but Alaska's richness is not just in glaciers and salmon and Brown bears and landscapes, but it's also in the traditional knowledge, the beauty and the diversity of those who know Alaska the best and who have always called this place home, Alaska’s Native peoples,” she said.

Derek DeRosier, Blackfeet, is the general manager of Sun Tours, which gives culturally oriented tours in Glacier National Park in Montana and on tribal land.

For the Blackfeet, he said, cultural tourism has “been around for as long as we've been here, whether you're talking about tribe-to-tribe interaction, and passing down story and language and ceremony with outsiders, or the idea of inclusion,” DeRosier said. “For us, for Blackfeet, you know, that was with other tribes. Then as we came into contact with non-Natives, that was a big part of it, sharing that,” he said.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, the Blackfeet Nation quickly made the hard decision to put health before economics and closed its borders to non-residents.

“We were really proud of that,” DeRosier said. However, it shut off the flow of the tens of thousands of people who annually drive across the reservation to visit Glacier National Park. Along with RV parks, Air BnBs, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other tourism-related businesses, Sun Tours saw a dramatic drop in business.

The summer of 2020 was “the first time in over 25 years that we haven't operated. We shut down for the entire year. We didn't turn a single wheel; we weren't on the road at all. We didn't do any tours on the reservation or in the national park, so we had zero revenue for the 2020 season.” Tribal, state, and federal emergency funds helped, he said, but it was a hard year.

“So we are fortunate that we survived and that we're able to continue our legacy of our company going on almost 30 years this season in providing what we provide, which is a cultural, interpretive tour about our history, our culture, our ceremonies, and our presence on the land as Glacier National Park. So, we're happy, and fortunate and thankful to be able to be here and still operate.”

At least 80 percent of the Blackfeet Nation now have received at least one vaccination. The tribe voted in March to open its borders. DeRosier is expecting a good year.

Hula kahiko performance at the pa hula in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Jan. 29, 2005, (Photo by Ron Ardis, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Tourism is bouncing back also in Hawaii, where it’s the state’s top industry. In 2019, a record 10.4 million visitors traveled to the islands.

More than a third of Native Hawaiians worked in tourism — moving materials, making sales, running offices, and preparing food. Some performed traditional songs at cultural centers or grilled Huli Huli chicken at roadside stands. A few put leis around the necks of arriving visitors.

Warm welcomes reflect Hawaiian traditions, said President and CEO John De Fries of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority at the Senate committee hearing.

“In the world of the Native Hawaiian, all life forms and living systems are interconnected and interrelated; be it the earth and sky, oceans and forests, flora and fauna, our ancestors, and descendants, be it the people within our communities and/or peoples we host from around the world. We are islanders who can source our genealogical origins to the cosmos and to the molten core of Planet Earth.

“We are Native Hawaiian,” De Fries said. “And, while Hawaii may be the single-most isolated land mass on our planet, we are connected to all other islands and continents by Moananuiakea or, the vast ocean that surrounds us.”

In 2020, the number of visitors to Hawaii dropped by 74 percent to 2.7 million visitors.

Now that flight cancellations have ended and restrictions on cruise ship sailings have been lifted, visitor numbers to Hawaii are rising.

A new law will allow cruise ships to once again make stops in Alaska. Foreign-flagged cruise ships traveling between two U.S. ports are required to stop in a foreign country. To prevent COVID’s spread, Canada last year banned cruise ship stops at its ports.

Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans, managed to get a unanimous bipartisan yes vote on a bill that allows direct sailing from Washington to Alaska. President Biden signed the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act on May 24. Cruise ships are expected to be able to begin making stops at Alaskan ports in mid-to-late summer.

Last month, Dunleavy announced a tourism aid package, including marketing, as part of his proposal for spending federal American Recovery Plan Act funds. As another incentive, the state of Alaska will offer tourists free COVID-19 vaccinations starting on June 1. 

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