Take a look at the conference program on American Indian tourism, and you can see how the country’s tribes are working to raise their profiles economically, culturally, recreationally, and even on the culinary front.
Hundreds of tribal leaders, travel industry professionals and vendors are at Isleta Resort & Casino this week for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association’s 20th annual American Indian Tourism Conference. The program provides an educational forum for tribes, tribal businesses and other attendees to help them with their tourism development and marketing plans.
As the only national conference on Indian Country tourism, association speakers and seminar presenters share knowledge, experiences and best practices from around the U.S.
The conference, which will conclude on Thursday, features a lineup of speakers providing new information and guidance for tribes just entering the tourism arena as well as those that already have robust programs and outreach to attract visitors both domestically and internationally.
And it’s not just casinos that are stoking visitor interest, although they’re important to the bottom line. Many tribes are looking to diversify investments and broaden their message, said Camille Ferguson, executive director of the Albuquerque-based national organization.
“A good example of a tribe bridging gaming and culture is the Buffalo Thunder resort,” said Ferguson. “You get immersed in art work the minute you walk into the place. And there’s also a beautiful museum on the property.”
Another example is Acoma Pueblo, where visitors can get tours of one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.
There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. as well as a number of state recognized tribes and Native Hawaiian tribes — all with their own unique stories to tell, said Ferguson, a member of the Tlingit Tribe of Alaska.
Citing U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Travel Association surveys and studies, tourism in Indian Country results in $8.6 billion in direct spending, which generates job growth, increases revenue and strengthens community development and services, such as education and health care. International visitation to Native communities has grown 180 percent in the past decade, said Ferguson, referring to a category of traveler that encompasses some of the highest spending tourists in the U.S.
It’s also non-native communities that are benefiting from Indian tourism — the airlines, the rental car agencies, the gas stations and restaurants. “Our visitors are dropping dollars along the way,” said Ferguson.
“The millenial traveler wants to experience a destination, whether it’s feeling the energy of a dance or drum performance, canoeing down a river or carving a wooden figure,” said Ferguson.
“Culinary tourism is definitely a trend that is growing,” said Ferguson. “Native American cuisines are catching fire” and are featured prominently on Indian Country restaurant menus.