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ASU developing sustainable tourism training curriculum for tribal lands

Promoting travel poses challenges not often experienced in non-Native tourism, professor says

A desert sunset with flowers in the foreground.

Photo by iStock

June 13, 2022

Unlike those who work in retail or restaurants, tourism professionals not only need to interest people in their product; sometimes they have to convince them to travel a long distance for it.

And if they happen to be Indigenous peoples eager to welcome visitors to tribal lands, they may be further challenged to successfully attract audiences to places that are often more difficult to reach than those near major infrastructure and transportation corridors.

Even travelers to relatively remote, yet well-attended sites, such as the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, may not learn about how Native culture and tradition are infused in stories whispered for centuries among the ancient rock formations.

To help promoters on tribal lands gain greater insights into sustainable tourism options, the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) asked faculty from the Arizona State University School of Community Resources and Development to develop a curriculum in sustainable tourism specifically for those working to promote visits to tribal lands.

Sherry Rupert (Paiute/Washoe), AIANTA’s chief executive officer, said visitors to many major attractions often miss the richness that Indigenous culture adds to that experience.

“Even if you have gone to iconic places like Grand Canyon, for example, you haven’t really experienced it until you’ve spoken with Native people from the 11 tribes of the Grand Canyon to tell you about their connection to that place, how they survived there, stories passed down from generation to generation,” she said.

Professor Kathleen Andereck said her team is developing a sustainable tourism curriculum that will debut in spring 2023. Its seven modules are each specifically tailored to tribal communities and nations, using case studies and examples of sustainable tourism already found in these locations.

The program awards a non-credit certificate. It also may be taken for one credit in tourism and recreation management from ASU.

Fewer staff members hamper tribes’ tourism push

Tribal communities and nations can have more challenges finding business than others in tourism do, Andereck said. Sometimes infrastructure and access issues, as well as the fact that tribes often have fewer staff members involved in promoting tourism, present obstacles beyond what many others in tourism experience.

“Everyone knows Monument Valley, but there are other opportunities on tribal land for tourist experiences,” Andereck said. “Not all tribes have the same level of development as others, and roads and infrastructure differ, and it can be a bit limiting for tourism. Sometimes there are different levels of expertise in tourism in different tribes.”

Andereck said the curriculum is designed to help those working in tribal tourism promote the fascinating Indigenous cultural aspects of many tourist destinations, especially ones on tribal lands often not generally known to the traveling public.

“Frequently, the first time that people go somewhere, they visit the more iconic attractions,” Andereck said. “The next time they will often try the off-the-beaten track destinations. Tribal attractions tend to be of this kind.”

AIANTA Program Development Director Hannah Peterson said it was critical for ASU to tailor a curriculum specifically to their needs.

“The conversation we had with ASU is that it’s not sustainable tourism, period, but sustainable tourism for cultural tourism development for Native communities in the U.S.,” Peterson said. “That’s different than teaching a general audience.”

AIANTA members already had access to a certificate program in cultural tourism with an international focus, but they needed more information on sustainable tourism, a subject ASU has thoroughly researched, Rupert said.

Organization sought ASU to develop program

“We wanted to really grow our certificate programs and knew ASU has a sustainable tourism program, where my husband is in the master’s program. We know that ASU is a great school,” Rupert said. “We are providing opportunities for learning in the tourism industry and across Indian Country. We provide resources to tribes across the nation to help them be successful in the tourism industry.”

A significant number of non-Native people participate in the certificate programs as well, she said.

AIANTA members who connect with the curriculum include both tribal employees and Native small business owners, Rupert said. Tourism practitioners and state and federal staff working in tourism also seek training to better learn how to engage with tribal communities.

Unlike tourism industry promoters in non-Native communities, those in tourism on tribal lands do not always have access to promotional revenue from state taxes on hotel room rentals, Rupert said. Tribes that levy room taxes often spend the revenue on vital services such as public safety, health care and education, leaving little — sometimes nothing — to fund tourism.

One of AIANTA’s main missions is to advocate on behalf of tribes and Native-owned businesses to experience more inclusion and equity in the tourism industry, Rupert said.

Rupert said it is important for her organization to have partners like ASU to help them grow the number of tourism professionals on tribal lands.

A spring 2019 AIANTA report, "State of Indian Country Tourism," surveyed more than 3,000 tribal tourism enterprises and Native-owned businesses in AIANTA’s proprietary database. The report stated that 28% of respondents said they had more than 10 full-time employees, while 37% said they employed one to three full-time workers.

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