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Old 12-04-2007, 09:43 AM   #1
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Arrow Tribes renew interest in tourism

Tribes renew interest in tourism
Experts see benefits in resurgence of international travel
By Jodi Rave
The Billings Gazette - 29 November 2007
BillingsGazette.com :: Tribes renew interest in tourism

MISSOULA, MT - American Indian tourism markets are expected to blossom as international visitors return to the United States after the greatest travel decline in U.S. history.

International travelers - including those from Canada and Mexico - set a record in 2007, with 53.6 million visitors. Overseas travelers are expected to set an all-time record in 2010, with an estimated 26.2 million people boarding ships and airplanes bound for the United States.

The Germans have created their own tourism industry, something they call "Indianerreisen, " or Indian tours, which is an expanding niche market that specializes in the exploration of Indian culture. More than 85,000 Germans visited an American Indian community in 2006, according to an Office of Travel and Tourism Industries survey.

"Now is the time to get back into the market and remind the international traveler of the unique opportunity that they can participate in and visit Native American sites while they're in the country," said Ron Erdmann, travel and tourism industries deputy director of research in the U.S. Commerce Department.

"You cannot get this anywhere else in the world. It's time for Native Americans to focus in on that story and get it out there."

American Indians have taken a giant step forward in developing a national and international tourism strategy. The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, or AIANTA, hired its first director in September to oversee tribal tourism operations.

"Indian tribes have been in the tourism business for generations, some for more than 100 years," said Tina Osceola, executive director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Museum Department. "The reason it's taken this long for an association to form within Indian Country is that tribes have now reached a point of governmental development where we have clearly defined the needs and nuances of tourism."

"We found there are things best represented by our own peers," Osceola said. "Indian tourism within the Seminole Tribe of Florida is about educating nontribal and tribal people about who we are as Seminoles and what we appreciate about our own culture and what we wish to share with others."

One of AIANTA's goals is to create its own tourism databases for Indian Country. Tribes like the Seminole, who operate a multimillion- dollar tourism business, have a lot to offer AIANTA, said Osceola, who is also an association board member.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration does track visits to Indian Country. Recent reports show that 700,000 overseas travelers visited a tribal community in 2006. Although visitation declined between 2000 and 2006, it will likely rebound, Erdmann said. Even though international tourism numbers dropped 40 percent to 50 percent between 2000 and 2003 - the steepest decline in U.S. history - travelers are returning.

"In 2004, we saw double-digit growth," Erdmann said. Forecasts for 2007 suggest an all-time high of 53.6 million international travelers arriving in the U.S. The previous record was 51.2 million, set in 2000.

"Travel is back up," Erdmann said. "We'll set a new record. It took seven years to recover."

Travel plummeted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While tribes like the Navajo Nation have long been a tourist destination, the majority of tribes haven't made the effort to invite people into their homelands.

"Tourism is hard to wrap your arms around, even for the United States. For Indian Country, it's even more complex," said Ed Hall, AIANTA founder. "In my estimation, what we're talking about is culture. There are a lot of people out there who want to see Indian communities and authentic culture."

AIANTA has organized tourism conferences for nine years. It hired a director after a $350,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The organization' s members plan to help American Indian communities look at tourism with new eyes.

"Native people are finally seeing that tourism is an economic component, and it's not just about bringing tourists here," said Jancie Hirth from the AIANTA's new headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M. "It helps the private entrepreneur. It helps the community. And it really helps educate the general public about our history."

When overseas travelers arrive, they want to see Native America in all its authenticity, which means they're interested in the language, and they want to see the real life of Indians, Hall said. For some communities, that demand can be intimidating because the majority of tribes use English as the dominant language. Hall sees an opportunity for tribes to bolster language and cultural preservation efforts.

"The one thing I look at in the way of tourism is reinvigorating the value of language for ourselves," he said. "It gives us the capacity of bringing back ownership to our value system."

As for the economic side of the equation, international travelers spent $107.9 billion in 2006. The international visitor spends about four times more than a domestic traveler.

"These are people who drop big sums of money," Erdmann said. "They've been everywhere in the world. They're trying to find out what's unique about this country. They're going to be far more likely to take something home. That's the kind of traveler you want."
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