Arizona tribes see boost in tourism from shutdown
Since the shutdown closed the Grand Canyon National Park, northern Arizona Tribes have seen a spike in tourism at places such as the Navajo’s Antelope Canyon. Photo by Laurel Morales/Fronteras
PAGE, Ariz. — American Indian tribes are feeling the impacts, both positive and negative, of the government shutdown.
Some have seen cuts to food distribution, child care and financial assistance for poor families. South Dakota tribes hit hard by last week’s blizzard could use some heat assistance. Across the country, tribal leaders are bracing for much worse.
At the same time, a handful of northern Arizona tribes have experienced an economic windfall thanks to the shutdown. Nita Rodriguez took a group of tourists through a narrow opening in a wall of red Navajo sandstone, a type of slot canyon. Visitors pointed their cameras toward the light that shines down into Antelope Canyon — the often forgotten “stepchild” of the nearby Grand Canyon.
“It’s been kind of busy,” Rodriguez said. “Out of the blue there’s all kinds of companies we’ve never heard of that’s just popping up everywhere — tour companies. They’re booking like 40-50 people at a time.”
The Navajo Tribe’s slot canyon has finally gotten the recognition it deserves as tour companies have had to come up with alternatives to the Grand Canyon — one of more than 300 national parks shut down by the federal government since Oct. 1.
Gib Egge and his group from Illinois had been planning for a year and a half to tour the national parks of the Southwest.
“A lot of us were pretty devastated,” Egge said. “So as plan B went into effect, fortunately there’s a lot of tribal land here, which is just as beautiful, I believe, as the national park land.”
Mariluisa Caricchia and her husband, Andrea, are also exploring tribal land for the first time. They traveled more than 6,000 miles from Italy to spend their honeymoon at the Grand Canyon.
“That was a pity,” Mariluisa Caricchia said. “It was a [lot of] travel to come here only for one time in a life. I don’t know if we will come back here.”
The couple appeared unfazed by the inconvenience as they giddily posed at every scenic photo op inside Antelope Canyon.
Tour company owner Ray Tsosie calls himself “Chief Tsosie” and sometimes even wears a headdress. He said it attracts more European tourists. Tsosie said he and his guides are ecstatic about the spike in tourism.
“We all get a piece of the pie and we all are hopefully going to be well-fed this winter,” Tsosie said. “But it’s kept jobs for many of our Native American guides who have to feed their families as well.”
Tourists determined to see the Grand Canyon can take in views from reservation land. Visitors to Grand Canyon West, owned by the Hualapai Tribe, can venture onto a plexiglass horseshoe walkway that stretches out over the chasm below. And heartier travelers can hike or helicopter into Supai Village to photograph the waterfalls.
Havasupai vice chairman Matthew Putesoy said he’s had four times the number of visitors that he normally sees this time of year.
“Tourism is the backbone of the tribe,” Putesoy said. “We really don’t have any other economic development.”
Putesoy said the tribe’s travel office was about to make a round of layoffs but the surge in tourism means workers can stay on the job a few more weeks.
This story was reported by the Fronteras: Changing Americas Desk, a multimedia collaboration among seven public radio stations. It is led by KJZZ in Phoenix and KPBS in San Diego and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of its Local Journalism Center initiative.