Over the past year, Native American travel professionals have pushed way past the lure of their casinos to promote diverse experiences in their communities. The messaging now emphasizes meetings, events, food tourism, local authenticity and longer stays.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that by 2020, growth in what it refers to as Indian Country tourism would produce 90.3 million visitors, a 20 percent increase.
The potential for meetings and conventions can be a crucial part of building a new hotel or resort. The Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites near Tuba City, Arizona — which in 2010 became the first hotel built on Hopi tribal land in 50 years — advertises 3,096 square feet of meeting space plus three breakout rooms, an array of audiovisual equipment, a business center, a theater, a lecture space and a banquet hall. The property’s capacity for meetings and conferences nearly receives as much exposure on its website as the hotel rooms themselves.
“It’s very important,” said James Surveyor, operations manager, of the meetings portion of the business. “Identifying the meetings market was one of the first things I did.”
Surveyor mentioned that the absence of a casino on the property provides a particular experience for the business traveler, potentially one with fewer distractions when compared with a casino-focused property in Las Vegas for example.
Surveyor also noted a recent increase in tourists from Asia — particularly China — in the region of the hotel, which sits between two major, internationally known attractions: the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. For 2017, the Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites is working to expand with a new educational dinner-entertainment option.
Events, including powwows, rodeos, and canoe journeys that are open to the public, also play a critical role in Native American tourism although many travelers are unaware of this accessibility. There are some limitations — non-Native Americans are not allowed to photograph, record, or participate in some sacred aspects of certain events, and many events are strictly drug- and alcohol-free — but many tribes are inviting visitors to watch, learn, and patronize Native American-owned businesses as part of an immersive travel experience.
“By welcoming and educating visitors, tribes are able to share stories that they want others to know, while still maintaining the privacy and sanctity of certain aspects of their traditions,” says Camille Ferguson, executive director of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA).
Food Tourism on the Menu?
Food tourism is growing beyond food trucks specializing in fry bread, a popular option in Phoenix for example. Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef who has been based in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana at different stages in his career, spoke to The New York Times recently about a contemporary movement of “new Native American cuisine.”
Sherman is the owner and CEO of The Sioux Chef, which is dedicated to catering and making indigenous foods more accessible, and Sherman and his business partner Dana Thompson created the Tatanka food truck. A restaurant is also in the works, backed by a Kickstarter campaign.
In the past few years, some journalists have wondered when Native American food will break out and become the next hot foodie trend.
AIANTA reports that it’s working on gathering data on food tourism to boost efforts in this area.
Squaxin Island Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort, located in Shelton, Washington, is a useful example of a multifaceted tourism effort. Beyond the casino, this property also contains a hotel, a spa, a golf course (rated among the best in the country repeatedly by Golfweek), a meetings and events center (plus staff to assist with event planning), and numerous restaurants, including the popular Squaxin Island Seafood Bar, featuring fresh local seafood from the Pacific Northwest.
The Coeur D’Alene Casino in Worley, Idaho adopts a similar approach to diversifying its business.
The 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline — which stands to destroy sacred and historic Native American sites, damage the local water supply, and negatively impact the Standing Rock Sioux tribe — may seriously jeopardize some travel destinations.
In September 2015, the launch of a destination website, NativeAmerica.travel, which was arguably the first of its kind, marked another step in fostering Native American tourism. Operated by AIANTA, this trip-planning site, which has more Instagram-worthy photography than many state tourism sites, encourages travelers to plan longer trips through tribal territories across the country.
AIANTA spokesperson Rachel Howard says that NativeAmerica.travel “has given tribes all over the country an otherwise unavailable means of marketing their tourism businesses and products to the world. The site and its content are constantly growing.”
“Since its launch, more than 100 native-owned attractions and accommodations have partnered with NativeAmerica.travel to elevate Indian Country as a prime destination, and 15 tribes have claimed their dedicated pages to tell their story to visitors,” says Howard.
The site, though, has very little traffic and gaining traction will be a big challenge.
The site’s support of Native American-owned businesses reflects a recent push toward local authenticity. The popular saying “support inspired natives, not native-inspired” and the hashtag #inspirednatives is embodied in Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation retail brand, which opened a prominent new store (with a meeting space) in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in August.
In a promotional video, Gong explains that “It really is an important symbol of this native renaissance, where native people are starting to take over a larger share of the market that has traditionally been dominated by non-native companies.”
“We believe that the true history of our peoples can only be told from our voices and perspectives,” says Ferguson.
The National Park Service recently provided grant assistance for a free digital travel guide called American Indians & Route 66, released in May, the same month that saw AIANTA’s establishment of National Travel and Tourism Week in Indian Country. AIANTA also hosted its 18th annual American Indian Tourism Conference this month.
The organization gets global visibility at trade shows including ITB Berlin, Showcase USA-Italy, and the U.S. Travel Association’s IPW, and AIANTA plans to expand this outreach.
Regarding the future, Howard says that in 2017 and beyond, AIANTA will continue “developing new training opportunities for tribes in every region of the country, so that they too can get involved.”
The organization also plans to expand its Public Lands Partnerships Program, “in which we work to identify tourism-related projects on or near native lands, and build alliances and working partnerships with public lands agencies, to bring Native voices to those projects.” One such example is the forthcoming inter-tribal interpretive center at Grand Canyon National Park.
Native American travel professionals are making waves and could make an increasingly big economic impact on their communities. We may also see more non-Native Americans look toward Indian Country as a multifaceted, immersive, authentic travel experience.