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Senate passes measure to include Indian Country in tourism plans

A view of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. The "Sky City" village is a well-known and popular tourist attraction. Photo from Sky City Casino Hotel / Facebook

Indian Country could see more tourists, along with their dollars, thanks to a bill approved by the Senate on Monday.

S.1579, the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience Act (NATIVE Act), does something rather simple. It requires the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior to update their management plans and tourism strategies to include tribes, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

Yet the bill, if enacted into law, could lead to big economic development gains for Native communities across the nation and it won't require the federal government to spend any new funds. That helps explain why it cleared the chamber by unanimous consent.

"Expanding local tourism to include tribes is a great way for Americans to learn about Native culture, history, and traditions," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said in a press release.

Grand Canyon Skywalk
The Hualapai Tribe of Arizona owns and operates the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a popular tourist attraction that draws about 370,000 people per year, according to USA Today. Photo from Facebook

Barrasso's committee approved the NATIVE Act at a business meeting last October. Although the measure never received a hearing on its own, the economic development angle fits in nicely with lawmakers' priorities. The bill also enjoys support from Republicans and Democrats.

"By better coordinating with our Native communities, this bipartisan bill would help build up the tourism infrastructure needed to create jobs, spur economic development, and highlight Native American culture," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), another co-sponsor who sits on Barrasso's committee, said in a press release.

Even though the bill was non-controversial, it was modified in one key respect as it reached the Senate floor. An entirely new section was added that speaks to a different issue entirely: recognition of Native Hawaiian governing entity.

Republicans in the Senate have blocked legislation to extend the policy of self-determination to Hawaii's first inhabitants and some are even holding up reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act due to provisions benefiting Native Hawaiians. The language that was added to the NATIVE Act clarifies that the bill doesn't take a position on the matter.

Participants in the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association annual conference toured Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado in September 2015. Photo from AIANTA / Facebook

"Nothing in this Act alters, or demonstrates congressional support for the alteration of, the legal relationship between the United States and any American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian individual, group, organization, or entity," the amended measure reads.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who introduced the NATIVE Act last June, supported the amendment. He also supports the right of Native Hawaiians to form their own government, something that won't be affected if the bill becomes law.

“In our state, we are proud that the Native Hawaiian contribution is foundational to who we are as a place and a people. Every visitor should know that," Schatz said in a press release.

The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association is one of many organizations in Indian Country that support the NATIVE Act. Sherry L. Rupert, the president of the group's board, testified in support of H.R.3477, the House version of the bill, at a hearing in February.

Youth welcome tourists to Hawaii. Photo from Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association / Facebook

"Indian Country tourism is already making significant contributions to the U.S. economy, and those contributions are growing each year," Rupert told the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. AIANTA is holding its 2016 conference on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington in September.

The House version of the NATIVE Act also enjoys bipartisan support and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee, has vowed to push it through before the end of the 114th Congress. Passage in the Senate brings the bill one step closer to reality.

Tourism in the U.S. is a $221 billion industry, according to the Department of Commerce. According to the surveys conducted by the agency, a record 1.65 million travelers from overseas visited Indian Country in 2014. That represents about 5 percent of all overseas visitors to the U.S.

"Indian communities saw the most travelers from China, the United Kingdom, and France," a hearing memo for H.R.3477 reads, citing data from the National Travel and Tourism Office.

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