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Native conference addresses challenges of tourism during pandemic

Workers at a school being built in the Seattle area that features Native American faces. (Courtesy image)

Cultural tourism is helping to pave the way to economic recovery for Native American tribes, as was clearly demonstrated during the 22nd annual American Indian Tourism Conference.

About 800 attendees participated in the virtual conference. Held online Sept. 14-18, the theme of the conference was “One Country, Many Nations.” The five days of sessions revealed similarities in the challenges facing each tribe due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The conference was a great way to get people together to talk about how the pandemic affected cultural tourism in North America,” said Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office. “We aren’t any different than anyone else; we have all been affected by it.”

The opening session featured keynote speaker Amber Torres, chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe located about 100 miles southeast of Reno, Nevada. The reservation consists of about 325,000 acres in a high desert river valley, used mostly for grazing and some ranching, surrounded by mountains, desert lakes and marshland.

The tribe has 2,300 members, about 1,200 live on the reservation. It is 40 miles from the nearest grocery store and 100 miles from the nearest hospital.

“We are a small tribe located in the great basin of northern Nevada,” Torres said. “The past seven months have been the most trying times tribes have faced with the virus and lives at stake. We have fared better than most by taking fast action and making hard decisions to ensure compliance to protect our community, children and elders.”

The tribe closed the reservation to all non-residents, including members who lived off the reservation. It shut all non-essential businesses. It opened a community store so residents would have access to produce, meat and other grocery items.

But the biggest hit the tribe took was closing the Weber Reservoir, its main tourist attraction and one of its largest forms of revenue. Fishing, camping, off road recreation and other activities are popular at the reservoir. The tribe hired staff to monitor it day and night, but outsiders defied the closure order and damaged signs and some areas.

The pandemic’s cultural tourism was among items discussed at the American Indian Tourism Conference. (courtesy image)

“It was very disheartening,” Torres said. “They feel it is their right to access our land whenever. Entering our reservation is a privilege, not a right and needs to be respected. The almighty dollar isn’t the most important thing now.”

Like many tribes that depend on tourism, the Walker River Paiute are looking for innovative ways to market its attractions online.

“We need to be prepared for everything because we are a second thought to the federal government,” Torres said. “We have to be sustainable, take care of our own and continue to stay resilient. Our people’s lives depend on it.”

Adapting to the pandemic

Other sessions also focused on resilience and practical guidance. Before Covid-19, tribal tourism was a promising approach to sustaining economic development, access to basic services and responsibly manage resources. During the pandemic, tribes have been opening cautiously since government assistance protocols are not necessarily adapted to Indigenous communities, according to Seleni Matus, executive director of the International Institute of Tourism at George Washington University.

“Indigenous communities celebrate their resilience and are remembering how much they have overcome through history,” said Matus. “It is time bring back that resilience. It’s clear we are in very different times now and the playbook that once existed isn’t fully applicable now.”

Diversifying products and services during the pandemic is important to attracting visitors.

“If you are a tourism enterprise, your world has been turned upside down over the last six months,” said Anna Barrera, a research scholar at GWU’s International Institute of Tourism.

Travelers are staying closer to home, so local and regional residents will likely be the majority of visitors. Barrera suggested adjusting to that reality by marketing to that demographic. If large groups are the norm, think about featuring activities and tours for small and family groups.

“We need to understand the new customer,” said Talia Salem, of The Urban Nomad, a tourism consulting firm. “People need a break that won’t make them more nervous. Marry health and safety with the visitor experience. Shift to live virtual tourism. Artisans, chefs and storytellers are taking their in-person tours and turning them into a live online experience.”

The pandemic’s impact on Native American casinos, such as the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s casino in Idaho, was a topic discussed at the American Indian Tourism Conference. (courtesy image)

Native architecture

During a session on how Native architectural design engages visitors, JohnPaul Jones (Oklahoma Choctaw/Cherokee) discussed how he incorporates Native values into his designs. Jones designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and other cultural centers including the Santa Ynez Chumash Cultural Center.

Jones spoke about huge murals of Native Americans in Seattle, which attract people from all over.

“It’s all about identity,” Jones said. “As Native people, we have woven our lives into the non-native world for more than 500 years. It’s time to reestablish our own identity. You can do it through tourism and activism. Stand inside your indigenous ways and not in some other tourist effort. Native tourism can really benefit and strengthen the community.”

U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland address

“I’m pleased that today many Native American entrepreneurs and professionals are experiencing a renaissance and sharing their work with the world,” said U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), representative from New Mexico’s First Congressional District. “Poverty and unemployment are nearly triple the national average. We can grow jobs through Native American businesses, but often resources aren’t available to Native communities, especially during the Covid shutdown and lack of broadband access.”

As a young single mother, Haaland started and ran a salsa company, but found limited access to resources for Native communities. Those barriers compelled her in 2019 to introduce the Native American Business Incubators Program Act, which will increase access to capital through the Department of the Interior for business development and growth in Native communities. The bill passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and is awaiting the President’s signature to become law.

“Tribal tourism is key to financial prosperity on tribal lands and spills over to agriculture, food, artisan works, wildlife preservation and self-determination,” Haaland said. “Financial tools and tax barriers are fundamental issues we need to work on in Congress. We need to move to uplift business in small sectors, especially Native tourism.”

International visitors

Planning for the return of international visitors entails more than just printing brochures and hoping for the best. Tribes must tell a compelling story and establish partnerships with other tourist destinations in the region.

“Pre-pandemic we all wished we had more time to do the things we couldn’t get to,” said Lisa Weigt, principal, Destinations by Design in Oklahoma, who thinks international tourists may come back in mid-2021. “Establish partnerships with someone who offers your same level of service. You want to give visitors more than one attraction per destination and partnerships do that.”

“You can cooperate with your competition in the international arena,” added Julie Heizer, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Travel and Tourism Office. “You can’t go it alone unless you are one of those really big guns, like Las Vegas or New York City.”

Know your markets and how they want to travel, Weigt advised.

“It’s foolhardy to think someone is going to travel from overseas just to come to your destination,” said Tony Lyle, VP of tourism development, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “They are coming to experience different parts of the U.S. They don’t have much time; they like to be given ideas.”

Lyle suggested reaching out to state tourism offices and local convention and visitors bureaus, who promote destinations together.

“They are all hungry for content and information,” he said. “If you don’t tell them, they won’t know about you. People want more than just the iconic American destinations. It’s worked really well for us.”

Tour operators are another efficient way to reach the international market, as are familiarization tours for the media.

“We have a lot of things for them (reporters) to do and they write articles,” said Sharon Calcote, director of the Louisiana Office of Tourism, Louisiana Byways. “We find articles are a great way to drive traffic, even better than advertising.”

Tourism from the lens of a tribal leader

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and former president of the Quinault Indian Nation, shared her perspective on tourism, climate and leadership.

“We are facing apocalyptic challenges including a firestorm of political, social and economic upheaval,” she said. “While it is so dark and uncertain, one thing is for certain: we have each other, our traditions and the spiritual dimension of our being. No matter where you go in Indian Country you can hear that drumbeat, the heartbeat of who we are today.”

Sharp believes the country is being tested and that ancient values can rise above the political fray.

“We need to be the leaders our ancestors hoped we would be,” she said. “This time is gifted to us; we are born, ready and prepared for this moment. This year has exposed what we have known for centuries; we knew there was a day of reckoning coming. This country so desperately needs the values we hold as Native people. How we handle this moment is the gift we will give to future generations and leaders.”

Millions of sockeye salmon used to crowd the Quinault River, but a few years ago there were only a few. The Quinault Tribe had to close the fisheries. Sharp flew over the source of the river, the Anderson glacier, and saw only a mudpile. She became a fervent climate change advocate.

Sharp attended a meeting at the United Nations to talk to potential partners outside of the U.S. about opening up traditional ceremonies, songs and dances to attract tourism.

“In that moment, I realized the value and the role of tourism,” she said. “It was an opportunity to take the best of North America and share it with the world. What a powerful industry this is.”

Sharp has met with Congressional leaders and said they realize the imbalanced economy in tribal nations. She made it clear they need to uphold their trust responsibility and respect sovereignty, instead of continuing to oppress tribes.

“I believe we have political leverage now and the whole world sees how exposed and vulnerable we are economically,” Sharp said. “Tourism is one of those pieces that if we can grow, develop and support, will be the factor that sees us through this crisis.”

Casinos and Culture

During the pandemic, tribal gaming nationwide has reported a collective loss of nearly 300,000 jobs and an economic loss of $4.4 billion. As casinos begin to reopen, the new normal of safety measures for guests and employees have been implemented. Some leaders in the industry see this as the right time to redefine their marketing efforts.

Laura Stensgar, CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino in Idaho, outlined what they have done since the pandemic began in March. The casino, its resort and golf course usually have about 900 employees and 850 in the off-season.

“Gaming is an effective tool to generate jobs for tribal members and revenue for tribal social programs,” Stensgar said. “We have been able to provide for our people. We are a tribe with a casino, not a casino with a tribe.”

Cultural arts are incorporated into the resort’s design with murals, sculpture and beadwork prominently displayed.

“We have a beautiful story and we want to share it,” Stensgar said. “But we are careful with how much we share. There is a fine line about how much to share about our traditions; we consulted with our elders.”

The casino’s cultural tourism program has been a success since its inception about four years ago. Activities include kayak and canoe tours, an Indian cliff hike, bicycle and boat tours, a silver mine tour, moccasin workshop, eagle aviary tour, the last battle tour and an authentic cultural dinner with drum and dancers. The program results in longer guest stays at the resort and it attracts new groups.

“Cultural tours have worked out very well for us, it brings in regional and international tourists,” Stensgar said. “As a casino resort, we want a return on our investment but it’s also great PR to share culture.”

Stensgar said it was surreal and sad to walk through the empty casino and parking lot after it closed in March. She knows how important the revenue is to the tribe. The tribal council established a task force and looked at ways to open safely; they reviewed the CDC guidelines, the Wynn Resorts protocols and their own health center experts. They reopened May 1 with a mask mandate and other safety measures.

“People want to get out,” Stensgar said. “We are social people and it’s hard to stay confined. As tribal people, we have always persevered and adjusted to our environment.”

Casino gaming also drives the business of tourism at the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. About 10 years ago the tribe began a strategic investment in cultural tourism and invested in historic and cultural assets. Today they have six museums, 5,000 pieces of Cherokee art and more than 100 programs per year located on more than 66,000 acres in the eastern Oklahoma foothills of the Ozark mountains.

“Visitors get a glimpse of the Cherokee story,” said Travis Owens, director of Cultural Tourism and Community Relations at Cherokee Nation Businesses. “The idea was to build a hub; we have a high density of cultural sites near our capital of Tahlequah.”

In March, all those sites closed and they are figuring out how to operate in a Covid world. The casinos opened in June and the culture programs in August. A mask mandate is in place along with health screening, temperature checks, strict social distancing and cleaning protocols across all properties.

“People have an understanding of masks; we made it part of our advertising,” Owens said. “We want to keep visitors safe. We also created virtual tour experiences with 3D scans. All are available on our website.”
Tribal destinations have shown resilience during the pandemic, by using virtual or smaller in-person tours, as they strive to retain important tourism revenue.

Carrie Dilley, visitor services and development manager at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress, attended the conference and was impressed with the ‘outside the museum/attraction mindset.’

“I really enjoyed how they were able to weave in discussion on job development and sustainability,” Dilley said. “I enjoyed learning how other Tribes capitalize on their own tourism ventures and also hearing about shared challenges.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at