Grand Canyon Skywalk Operator Wages Legal Battle with Hualapai Tribe of Arizona
The Hualapai Tribal Nation of Northern Arizona, which owns the glass-bottomed observation deck that juts out like a horseshoe over the Grand Canyon, is entangled in a lawsuit with its tour operator, the Times reported in its most emailed article of the day the morning of April 25.
The Grand Canyon Skywalk, made of glass spanning 70 feet and suspending 4,000 feet above the canyon’s floor and the Colorado River, attracts tourists from around the globe, reported the Associated Press. It withstands 100 mph winds, and shock absorbers prevent the walkway from shaking when visitors traverse the bridge or pretend to fall over the edge as photographers capture their picture.
David Jin, the Las Vegas-based investor originally from Shanghai, China, put forward the $30 million to construct the Skywalk. Jin sought out the Hualapai Tribe in 1996 with the idea to build the tourist attraction with his own money. The destination, which opened in 2007, draws about 300,000 visitors a year, according to the AP. Visitors pay $29.95 per ticket to peer beneath their feet into the canyon’s depths, reported USA Today.
Jin and the tribe signed an agreement that they would split revenues for 25 years in exchange for Jin’s $30 million investment. Jin is also supposed to receive a cut-rate price for the scores of Asian tourists he draws to the reservation, stated the Times. Jin received part of his dues in 2007, although the tribe failed to provide accounting to back up the payment, according to the AP. He has received nothing since then.
Jin took his case to tribal court and the United States District Court in Phoenix. In documents, Jin estimates his fair share at $100 million, if the tribe, which recently passed an eminent domain ordinance, severs the partnership. But since the tribe ignored its contractual duty to produce financial records, Jin guesses the tribe would “low-ball” his offer at $15 million, stated the AP.
The tribe maintains Jin has fallen through on his responsibility to complete a visitor center for tourists to pass through to access the Skywalk. "It's about right and wrong," Waylon Honga, chief operations officer for Grand Canyon Resort Corporation, told the AP. "It's pretty simple."
Jin’s complaint charges that tribal members have embezzled Skywalk revenues, and the tribe is selling tickets in violation of the contract, reported the AP. “A fraudulent scheme was uncovered in which employees of a tribally chartered corporate entity . . . were embezzling and absconding with revenues from Skywalk ticket sales,” the lawsuit alleges, stated USA Today.
Dave Cieslak, Hualapai spokesman, told USA Today that allegations of embezzlement are false and offensive. “Apparently, it’s not enough that Mr. Jin violated the terms of his agreement with the tribe . . . but now, he insults the Hualapai people with this patently false and outrageous allegation? Sadly, it’s what we’ve come to expect after years of broken promises.”
Jin's complaint also highlights the tribal tourism enterprise’s turnover of six chief executives since the parties inked a deal in 2003. Alleged mishandling of money has led to successive ousts, reported the Times. “They have problems with accounting,” said Aimee Romero, a spokeswoman for Jin. “They have problems with their books.”
Next month, a hearing is scheduled, and attorneys for both sides told the AP the best way to settle the dispute is through arbitration.
The 2,100-member Hualapai Tribal Nation holds a million acres of northwestern Arizona land. Its canyon-focused tourism has proven strong—the number of visitors who traffic the Skywalk or raft its portion of the Colorado has increased four times since 2007, when it attracted about 150,000 people annually, reported the Times.
Adding to the tribe’s tourism pull, helicopter tours start at $129, and its gift shop features full-length Indian headdresses that can run up to $2,000. Visitors can gallop on horseback around the canyon’s rim for 90 minutes at $75. Revenues are estimated in the millions, although the exact dollar amount is contested.
Jin's attorneys told USA Today that the tribe's takeover could affect operations.