ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spending by visitors to the nation's largest American Indian reservation has increased by nearly one-third over the past several years, and Navajo Nation officials are pointing to word of mouth for the uptick in interest in the sprawling reservation.
Spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation covers more than 27,000 square miles. It borders the Grand Canyon and sits on the southern edge of the sandstone cliffs, spires and red desert expanses that make up Monument Valley.
The Navajo Nation also surrounds the archaeological sites at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico and is home to Canyon de Chelly, where artifacts and cliff dwellings dating from the 4th to 14th centuries line the canyon walls.
A study done by a Northern Arizona University research center for the tribe shows some 600,000 visitors made nearly $113 million in direct purchases on the reservation in 2011. That represents a 32 percent increase in tourism spending since 2002.
Albert Damon, head of the tribe's economic development division, said the tribe has many families and friends who are helping to promote the Navajo Nation as a destination.
"No amount of money can equate to positive word-of-mouth advertising," he said in a statement issued late Friday.
The economic impact study and yearlong survey show the number of U.S. visitors has declined since 2002 but visits by international travelers have increased by more than 11 percent in the last nine years. German and French tourists topped the list.
Tribal tourism officials were also encouraged by the study's finding that more travelers were making the Navajo Nation a primary destination, rather than just a stop on a longer trip.
In 2011, visitors were spending most of their money on lodging, followed by transportation, arts and crafts, and meals and groceries.
The study outlined the demographics of Navajo Nation visitors by gender, education level and household income based on a survey of more than 2,000 people.
Damon said the information is key to helping the tribe when it comes to marketing and tourism development. Right now, about 1,800 full-time jobs — from tour guides and museum staff to hotel workers — depend on the Navajo tourism industry.
Tribal leaders have been discussing the potential that lies along the East Rim of the Grand Canyon and the possibility of developing a resort and aerial tramway. With development, the Navajo Nation could realize more tourist dollars and jobs, but the tribe's plans face opposition from the National Park Service and environmentalists.
Roberta John, the Navajo Tourism Department's program and project specialist, said the scenery across the Navajo Nation is what first intrigues visitors but she's hopeful sightseers will be inspired to dig deeper.
"We have our culture, we have our language, we have our history and a lot of the different things that relate to us as a people," she said.
In the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz., the historic council chambers are lined with colorful murals that depict the tribe's history. The veterans' park honors the famous Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, and the Navajo Nation Zoo — the only tribally-owned zoo in the United States — is home to animals that are native to the reservation.
On Friday, a blessing ceremony was held at the zoo to welcome two new mountain sheep.
"They've all got stories behind them," John said of the animals. "They're used in prayer — some as messengers and some for protection. We encourage students and people of all ages to learn about the significance of how these animals play a part in our culture."
There are also the rodeos and the fairs that stretch from July through mid-October. At the center of the festivities is food and much of that relates to corn, John said, referring to another sacred element of Navajo culture.
"It seems like there's a purpose for all the plants, all the animals and the foods. You just have to know the stories," she said. "Hopefully, when people visit Canyon de Chelly or the museum, they can learn a little bit about the culture."
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