“The website is the portal for visitors wanting to come to the United States from all over the world,” Camille Ferguson, AIANTA’s executive director, said. “The more we have that site populated with destinations for visitors to come see, the greater exposure we’re giving [tribal tourism].”

NATIVE Act, Tribal Tourism to Take Center Stage at RES New Mexico

Kristin Butler

Through collaborating with federal agencies on tourism, Indian country can add cultural and historical perspective to landscapes and tourist destinations, showcasing authentic tribal stories.

During a panel session at next week’s Reservation Economic Summit (RES) New Mexico, Camille Ferguson (Tlingit), executive director of to the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), will shed light on how the passage of the NATIVE (Native American Tourism and Improving Visitors Experience) Act in late September paves new roads for tribal tourism.

“This is a great opportunity for Indian tribes to be able to work with agencies and tell their stories — to share their stories their way,” Ferguson told ICTMN.

President Barack Obama signed the NATIVE Act into law on September 23, 2016. The Act is simple in that it creates a bridge between tribes and federal agencies. But its passage will help draw more travelers and money to Native communities, according AIANTA. The Act requires federal agencies, like the Departments of Commerce and Interior, to update their existing management plans and tourism strategies to include tribes, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

RES New Mexico, presented by nonprofit The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (National Center), will take place November 14-17, 2016, at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino, on the Pueblo of Pojoaque, just 15 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Ferguson will share how AIANTA successfully pushed for the passage of the legislation, educate attendees on the Act’s provisions, and discuss how tribes can boost the $947 billion in direct traveler spending infused into the U.S. economy through tourism annually. Her RES Tourism panel will take place Wednesday, November 16, from 3:30-5 p.m.

“The NATIVE Act happened so fast. In reality, a bill getting through that quickly truly is a testament to AIANTA and the board to push to get that legislation going,” Patricia (Pat) Parker, vice chairwoman of the National Center board, told ICTMN.

RELATED: AIANTA Pushing for Legislation to Give Tribes More Control of Native Tourism

“From an economic development standpoint, there’s a lot of infrastructure emphasis in the Act — bringing interior transportation and commerce together. It gives tribes a fighting chance,” Parker said. 

“One of the beautiful things about this Act is that tribes are being included into [federal and land] management plans. When you’re at the table — at the forefront of the planning — we can identify how we can work together and enhance federal and land management programs,” Ferguson said.

For instance, AIANTA currently collaborates with the National Park Service. (The parties signed an MOU in 2011.) “We’ve worked on a couple of projects that definitely have already enhanced visitors’ experience,” Ferguson said.

For one, AIANTA and tribes added cultural context to the Grand Canyon Desert View, where a Watchtower, perched on the edge of the Canyon, offers majestic views. “It’s an iconic location, a world location. However, it was kind of missing a sense of place. You can look out and see the beauty — but not really understand the full history of that area,” Ferguson said.

“By bringing in the people who lived in that area, the Grand Canyon Desert View Interpretive Center vastly enhanced the experience and educates visitors on indigenous history. You see artists demonstrating, you see Native dancers, you learn about the structure that is there and the artwork that is inside,” Ferguson said.

Additionally, through its partnership with the NPS, AIANTA and numerous tribes launched a new travel guide, “American Indians and Route 66,” which includes Native history and points of interest along the iconic route from Chicago to California. The guide also spotlights authentic indigenous experiences that are available today.

RELATED: AIANTA and Route 66 to Launch Landmark Project in New Mexico

Ferguson will also hone in on the huge market for international tourism. From 2014-15, Indian country saw a 19 percent increase in international visitors — from approximately 1.6 million to 1.9 million visitors. “When you look at the fact that the average overseas visitor spends $3,435 per trip, that can add up pretty fast,” Parker said. “I think that there is a market and opportunity [for cultural tourism] — and especially one where I’d like to see tribes using self-determination and sovereignty to showcase who they are.”

AIANTA helps tribes identify and gain control of their cultural assets. “Cultural tourism is about local business and local jobs, and it’s about the tribes telling their own stories in their own voices, thus avoiding cultural stereotypes and exploitation,” Parker said.

Next steps for Ferguson are working to make AIANTA the official conduit between federal agencies and tribes concerning the NATIVE Act. She traveled to Washington D.C. on Monday to meet with the federal agencies and discuss the provisions and what AIANTA does as it relates to some of the provisions laid out in the Native Act.

“One other thing that I think is really important is to ensure that travelers that come to the United States know that there are Native venues that they can experience. I think that having that conduit and that agency that is connecting tribes to federal agencies that have existing programs will definitely be an advantage to the United States as a whole, because of the fact that visitors that do come to the United States that visit Indian country do spend an average of 12 days longer,” Ferguson said. “They [also] typically spend a little more while they’re visiting. That information alone is beneficial to the industry.”

AIANTA will help tribes assess their cultural assets, and decide how they want to present it — or if they want to. Some tribes have voiced their concern about tourists visiting sacred sites.  “Some tribes are not ready for [cultural tourism], and that’s certainly their choice,” Parker said. Meanwhile, others may never want to pursue tourism, she added. For those who need more information to reach a decision about creating a cultural tourism plan, the National Center and AIANTA offer resources. 

RELATED: National Travel Exchange Features Indian Country Tourism for First Time

Check out the rest of the RES New Mexico agenda here.

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