LEUPP, Ariz. — It’s time for the Navajo Nation to fully engage in the country’s $1.1 trillion tourism industry, said Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren as he opened the 3rd annual Navajo Nation Tourism conference at Twin Arrows Casino and Resort today.
Only three pre-pandemic years ago, more than 4.5 million tourists traveled through Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce and Zion National Parts, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley.
When they wanted to see the Navajo Nation, experience its culture and buy its art, most were at a loss because the Nation is years behind the tourism times.
“All four states around us are heavily invested in tourism,” he said. “Navajo is being left behind. Bordertowns and the bordering states have adapted to the new tourism industry. We need to catch up.”
With the recent snowy weather, tourists will leave millions of dollars in northern Arizona and southern Utah within just a few days, the president said. They fill hotels and Airbnbs, eat at a wide variety of restaurants, buy gas, food, clothes, equipment, and visit every store they can. But not on the Navajo Nation.
Why will Navajo tourism be successful?
“Because tourists love our land and they want to experience our culture,” President Nygren said. “They want the Navajo experience. They want to take that experience home.”
Tourism is not as foreign as it may seem, said Tony Skrelunas, executive director of the Division of Economic Development that is hosting the conference.
For generations, he said, Navajos traveled to other tribes to visit, makes friends, trade and learn about their cultures.
“Ten thousand years ago, our clans and tribes visited each other,” Skrelunas said. “They still know Navajo songs. It made us feel significant in the world. They had similar songs and similar routes to travel.”
During Sunday’s Superbowl in Gilbert, he said, Motel 6 sold hotel rooms for $400 a night. Everyone had to travel there and everyone had to eat there, he said.
“How could we get those visitors to come to Navajo,” he asked? “What do we have to offer? How do we compete?”
By becoming creative, he said. And part of that is keeping the sacred areas sacred, untouched and unphotographed where necessary so Navajo remains friendly and hospitable to visitors.
Tourism is not just for tourists, he said. It will require infrastructure of new roads, housing for employees, more stores, internet connection, amenities, everything that will encourage Navajos to return to operate these businesses.
President Nygren said a Harvard University study found that tourism makes up more than 10 percent of world-wide GDP and represent seven percent of the world’s total exports.
Tourism embraces the entire hospitality industry, outdoor sports industry, camping industry, food industry, travel industry and the entertainment industry.
Behind each of those businesses are travel agents, tour operators, educators, lawyers, managers, financial experts and maintenance personnel.
“In tourism, there are opportunities for employment at every level,” the president said. “Tourists want to come to the Navajo Nation because we have some of the most beautiful land in the country and in the world.”
With the era of coal mining and power production nearing its end on the Navajo Nation, young people can no longer get jobs at home as engineers, control room operators, welders, mechanics or managers where their parents and grandparents worked for 50 years.
With the closure of the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine, that ended a period when the Navajo government received $40 million a year in revenue and saw 1,000 or more Navajos in high-paying jobs.
With this transition, tourism – a clean industry – presents a future that is seemingly unlimited for a young Navajo generation, and the Navajo Nation foresees its next multi-billion industry.
Tourism is sustainable, President Nygren said. It grows and makes jobs ranging from tour guides to management to ownership, for employees of all ages and all education levels.
As tourism inevitably expands across the Navajo Nation, Navajo students will have another pathway home with degrees in hospitality, hotel management, construction management, physical education, culinary arts, accounting and law, he said.
The president said tourists are hungry to see the inside of hogans, hear the Navajo language spoken, listen to Navajo songs, see powwows and Native American dances, learn about the rich Navajo culture, even attend a ceremony when they can.
The want to ride horses, camp, hike, backpack, take photos of mountains, see sunsets, waterfalls, sand dunes, and see how Navajos live, he said. They want to herd sheep, watch a rug being woven, learn about medicinal plants, learn what is important to Navajo people.
Best of all, they want to spend money, buy directly from artists and artisan, see the land from a Navajo perspective and return home to tell friends about their life-changing experience like no other vacation they’ve ever had, he said.
The president reported that according to Arizona State University’s Center for Sustainable Tourism, tourism:
• improves nation-to-state relationships
• creates more opportunities for entertainment and recreation.
• opens cultural exchanges.
• leads to greater personal happiness, well-being and education for tourists.
Last month in Phoenix, President Nygren met incoming Arizona Office of Tourism Director Lisa Urias who told him she is available to help the Navajo Nation develop its tourism industry. Millions of people go to Grand Canyon every year. It makes sense for them to expand their travel plans to visit the Navajo Nation which is on Grand Canyon’s eastern border, she said.
Tourism is an industry that advertises itself through social media. Instagram is already bursting with eye-popping scenic places in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
What has been missing to leave the Nation behind, he asked?
First, the Navajo government isn’t doing enough, he said. Rather than make it hard for Navajos with a dream to launch a tourism business, the government needs to make it easy.
Navajo tour operators have been marketing themselves. Because of COVID- 19, many Navajo areas and sites have been closed too long. By comparison, he said, Las Vegas reopened in March 2021.
Next, the Navajo Nation needs RV parks and KOA campgrounds like the one being built in Page, Ariz., that borders LeChee Chapter.
The Navajo Nation could build rest areas along its highways to make long miles more comfortable for travelers. Hotels under construction need to be completed and more built.
Navajos need training ranging from customer service to geology to Navajo cultural stories.
Not only can Navajos be employed, he said, the Navajo government will profit from tourism, too, through employment, tax revenue, preservation of language, culture and way of life, and provide a way for Navajos to return home to good-paying jobs or businesses of their own.
The Navajo Division of Economic Development, said the U.S. Treasury will soon be making $500 million in federal funding available to tribes as loans for individuals to begin businesses. Tourism on the Navajo Nation should be part of that, he said.
Of that total allocation, $89,538,528 will be awarded to the Navajo Nation over 10 years, he said.
The program will allow small business credit initiatives, provide loan guarantees, loan participation, capital access programs, collateral support programs, venture capital and technical assistance for small businesses on the Navajo Nation, Capitan said.
The program is authorized by American Rescue Plan Act Reauthorization of 2021, he said. The Treasury announced the program in 2020. The Navajo Nation expects its first allocation sometime this year, he said.