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Tourism Benefits Tribes, Boosts Economies, Creates Jobs for Native Americans

Summer is fast approaching, and with it comes millions of vacationers from at home and abroad

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This undated photo shows a Yavapai tour guide speaking with a group of visitors to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Maricopa County, Arizona. Courtesy: AIANTA VOA

By: Cecily Hilleary

Summer is fast approaching, and with it comes millions of vacationers from at home and abroad. Travel experts cite growing interest in Native American tourism, “authentic” cultural exchanges with tribes beyond gambling at tribal casinos.

Native tourism can be beneficial to tribes, boosting economies, creating jobs and allowing Native communities to control their own historic narratives. But tourism has its drawbacks, and some tribes have found that pleasing tourists while maintaining their cultural identity can be challenging.

americans, tourism, economies
This September 9, 2018 photo shows dancers at a pow wow, part of Indian Summer Festival, which takes place each year on the weekend after Labor Day in Milwaukee, Wi. Courtesy: AIANTA VOA

In 2016, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 1.95 million international tourists visited U.S. Indian reservations, supporting more than 44,000 jobs.

The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), a national organization that helps Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian tribes and communities to advance tourism, projects the number of international visitors to U.S. reservations will rise to 2.4 million by 2020.

“People want to learn the real stories from the people who have lived them,” said AIANTA spokesperson Monica Poling. “So, rather than bringing in a non-Native tour guide to recount a history they don’t have an attachment to, our tribal members are involved in developing and crafting their own stories,” she said.

americans, tourism, economies
Memorial to the 1838 Trail of Tears at the Cherokee Heritage Centre in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. VOA

Some tribes, like the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, already have well-developed programs that include museums, cultural centers and guided tours to landmarks and historic sites. Cherokee National Day, an annual commemoration of the signing of the Cherokee’s Constitution in 1839, attracts as many as 100,000 visitors each year.

But others, particularly those located in poor, rural areas, are hard-pressed to meet tribe members’ needs, let alone build up tourism.

economies, tourism, americans
In a Friday, July 20, 2012, photo, from the left; Tricia Bear Eagle, Helen Red Feather, Rudell Bear Shirt and Edward Jealous Of Him, all of Wounded Knee, S.D., wait for tourists near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservati. VOA

Ivan Sorbel, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, says the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota, has much to offer tourists: casinos, visitor centers, a heritage center dedicated to the arts, historic sites and incredible scenery.

“But we don’t have the infrastructure to support big numbers of visitors,” he said.“We have one motel and one casino hotel, but they offer limited beds and couldn’t accommodate large tour groups for overnight stays.”

Expanded tourism, he said, would also strain the reservation’s road system and water supply.

“But given the increasing interest in Native travel, we’re looking forward to growing this sector in the near future,” said Sorbel.

economies, americans, tourism
The landscape of the Badlands boasts a maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires, with sedimentary rock layers exposed by eons of erosion. VOA

Contrived culture?

Tourism can sometimes have a negative impact on tribes. Some studies suggest that encounters between tribes and tourists may be too brief to significantly change non-Natives’ preconceived notions about American Indians.

Tribes may stage artificial culture by dressing up in inauthentic regalia, setting up tipis or passing off cheap souvenirs as “genuine” Native crafts.

economies, tourism, americans
A vendor wheels her cart of souvenirs before the start of the North American Indian Days parade on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., Saturday, July 14, 2018. VOA

“If the best you can do is to dress up and show visitors what people looked like 200 years ago, to my way of thinking you have already failed,” said Sara Mathuin, the owner of Go Native America, who for 20 years has conducted small tours in Indian Country for international visitors and says she has “seen it all.”

Many tourists, in her experience, developed an interest in Native Americans through the “New Age” movement.

“They choose what elements of the culture they like and meld it all together to create a religion that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real Native America.”

tourism, americans, economies
Dancers and a tipi at the European Rainbow Gathering in Bosnia, 2007. New age movements and Indian “hobbiests” have appropriated many elements of Native American cultures and spirituality. VOA

A good tour, said Mathuin, focuses on human similarities, not human differences. Tourists are less likely to appropriate from those they’ve gotten to know personally.

Tourists sometimes cross boundaries or fail to show respect for their host cultures — crashing religious ceremonies, for example, or picking up artifacts.

“I have friends on Pine Ridge who say (some European tourists) don’t even bother to knock on front doors,” said Mathuin. “They just open the front door and say, ‘Can I have a look around?’”

Tourists can also wreak havoc on the environment and strain water and energy supplies.

tourism, economies, americans
This undated photo provided by the U.S. National Park Service shows toilet paper strewn throughout Death Valley National Park, Calif. National parks across the United States are scrambling to clean up and repair damage caused by visitors and storms. VOA

Despite the potential drawbacks, Mathuin believes when done right, tourism can benefit tribes tremendously. And “doing it right” doesn’t require fancy facilities or play-acting.

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“All it requires are people and knowledge,” she said. “In the end, it’s all about the stories.” (VOA)

Cecily Hilleary is a journalist at Voice of America. Twitter: @CecilyHilleary

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Sri Lanka to Reduce Airline Charges to Help Tourism Industry

The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion

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srilanka, tourism
Buddhist monks take part in a prayer ceremony at a buddhist temple for the victims, three days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. VOA

Sri Lanka’s government announced Tuesday it will reduce ground handling charges for airlines and slash aviation fuel prices and embarkation fees to help the country’s vital tourism industry recover after Easter suicide bombings killed more than 250 people.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said the decision will lead to an increase in flights to Sri Lanka and a reduction in ticket prices, which will attract more tourists to the Indian Ocean island nation, famed for its pristine beaches.

Seven suicide bombers from a local Muslim group, National Thowheed Jammath, attacked three churches and three luxury hotels on April 21, killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the U.S. and Britain. Tourist arrivals declined 57% in June from a year earlier, dealing a severe blow to the tourism industry, the country’s third-largest foreign currency earner after remittances from overseas workers and textile and garment exports.

sri lanka, tourism
Kandy Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka. Wikimedia Commons

The cuts in charges and fees will be in place for six months, said Johanne Jayaratne, head of the government’s tourism development agency. About 2.3 million tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018, when 29 airlines offered 300 flights per week. After the April 21 attacks, 41 fights per week were canceled, amounting to a loss of 8,000 passenger seats. Several airlines have reinstated their normal schedules since then, but others have not.

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Dimuthu Tennakoon, chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives, said the government decision will encourage airlines to increase their capacity and offer attractive fares.
“That will definitely happen with this reduction because fuel and ground handling contribute a significant percentage of the total cost element of any airline,” he said.

Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Around half a million Sri Lankans depend directly on tourism and 2 million indirectly. The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion. (VOA)