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Rural Tourism Conference Emphasizes Business Partnerships with Tribes

ACOMA - Native American attractions help draw millions of tourists each year to the Land of Enchantment, but Indian leaders say the pueblos have yet to fully enjoy the benefits.

Participants at the fourth annual Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) conference April 28-29 at Acoma toured tourist attractions in Cibola County, including El Morro National Monument, which borders the Ramah Navajo Reservation and contains ruins of an 875-room pueblo from the late 13th century. The conference focused in part on finding ways for Indian and non-Indian tourism professionals to partner in promoting cultural tourist attractions like El Morro. (05/12/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"Our communities are focal points for tourists, but we lack basic resources like hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues to capture tourism dollars," said Calvin Tafoya, economic development director for Santa Clara Pueblo, during the fourth annual Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) conference. "To develop those things, we need to create long-term partnerships with tribal and nontribal entities."

To help build such partnerships, this year's REDTT conference focused on finding ways for Indian and non-Indian tourism professionals and volunteers to work together. The April 28-29 conference was held at Acoma Pueblo to highlight the importance of partnering with Native American communities, said REDTT director Mike Cook.

"This is the first time we've held a state conference at a pueblo, and it marks a new direction for us," Cook said. "Indian reservations are so important to New Mexico tourism. We want this to be the beginning of a very strong partnership."

REDTT, which is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and coordinated by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, has worked with some pueblos and Indian organizations in recent years.

REDTT has done free hospitality training for many tribal tourism employees. It also provided training, money and technical assistance to the Cuba High School Travel Academy, which sells package tours of Navajo attractions in northwestern New Mexico. The academy offers hands-on training in the tourism industry for Cuba High School students, about 70 percent of whom are Navajo.

Acoma Pueblo participates in REDTT's Cibola County tourism council, which has received grants to strengthen tourist promotion, including $2,500 for two billboards on Interstate 40 inviting travelers to the local visitors' center.

"REDTT has helped unite Indian and non-Indian organizations in a community effort to increase tourism," said Star Gonzales, sales and catering manager at Acoma Pueblo's Sky City Hotel and Conference Center. "It's been very successful."

However, the Acoma conference marks a turning point, because representatives from six other pueblos also participated: Laguna, Jemez, Santa Clara, Zuni, Isleta and San Juan. The conference offered workshops on Indian tourism, including one on partnering with the pueblos that featured Tafoya and other guest speakers.

"This is still a new business arena for tribes, so it's a learning curve," said Tafoya. "Historically, tribes have been tools for businesses, not the people who run businesses."

Forming successful partnerships is a mutual challenge for Indian and non-Indian organizations, Tafoya said. "Outside businesses need to learn about tribal culture to develop relationships," he said. "Communication is critical with tribes, because they tend to emphasize building a trusting relationship, not just a business partnership."

Nontribal organizations must learn about pueblo structure and governance with emphasis on forging ties to tribal economic development offices, while tribes must improve business strategies, like marketing to targeted audiences instead of less-efficient general advertising, Tafoya said

Most speakers said tribes must expand beyond gaming, despite the ongoing benefits from casinos. New Mexico gambling attracted 749,000 people in 2002, a 13 percent jump from the 662,000 patrons in 2001 and the second-highest patronage since gambling peaked at 829,000 in 1998, according to state Tourism Department economist Paul Narbatus. "The casinos do attract patrons, but the tribes need other attractions like the Acoma Convention Center and basic infrastructure like hotels and restaurants to take advantage of cultural tourism," Narbatus said.

In addition to workshops, the conference allowed pueblo representatives to discuss partnering opportunities among themselves and with non-Indian professionals, including a meeting with Monica Abeita, state program manager for Indian tourism.

"There are very promising opportunities under Governor Bill Richardson," said Abeita, who is working with tribes to prepare for a first-ever tribal-state economic development summit in June. "We're working to treat tribes as full partners, but change often comes with growing pains. We can and must be able to talk with each other and pull together as a state."