When the Japanese visualize the American Southwest, they traditionally think of two things: the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.
"John Wayne movies are real popular in Japan," says Osamu Hoshino, director of the Office of International Business Development for the state Department of Community and Economic Development. "Everyone in Japan recognizes Monument Valley from the movies, and they want to come and see for themselves."When tourists arrive at Grand Canyon, they find first-class hotels, restaurants and gift shops. They find tour guides, mule trips and airplane tours.
But when they arrive at Monument Valley, they find . . . mostly desert.
There is no visitor center, no gift stores or markets, and only one hotel at Goulding's Trading Post. All of which makes it very difficult to keep tourists in southeastern Utah any length of time. A dozen or so roadside stands offering Indian jewelry and wares are about the only places where tourists can spend their money.
"The Japanese tourist likes to spend lots of money, but there are no places there really to spend money," Hoshino said. "And we're hearing that Japanese tourists wish for more suitable lodging facilities. The Japanese like first-class accommodations."
Some Utah officials have even complained that officials from the Navajo Indian Reservation, based primarily in Arizona, have been encouraging tourists in the Southwest not to go into southeastern Utah because of the lack of amenities, instead directing them to Arizona attractions.
The lack of facilities of any kind in Monument Valley is the fly in the ointment of an otherwise successful campaign by the state Department of Community and Economic Development to attract Japanese travelers to southern Utah.
The number of Japanese tourists to Utah has more than doubled in recent years. And as tourists increasingly flock to Monument Valley, the need for adequate facilities becomes even more pressing, said Hoshino.
Max Jensen, southeast regional manager for the Division of Parks and Recreation, which owns a prime piece of real estate in Monument Valley, said the division and the state Travel Council have discussed plans for a state-operated visitor center to be built along the main highway in Monument Valley.
The facility, which could be operated in conjunction with the Navajo Tribal Park, would act not only as an interpretive experience on Monument Valley and the Navajo Indians, but as a tourist-information point to steer travelers toward Utah attractions.
It would also include a centralized market for Navajos to sell their wares.
"There is a large volume of traffic moving between Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park (in Colorado)," said Jensen, "and a lot of them detour north to see Monument Valley. But very few continue on through Utah on their way to Colorado. There is nothing for them when they get to Monument Valley, so they turn around and go back into Arizona."
If travelers were made aware of it, the route to Mesa Verde could just as easily go north through Blanding, Bluff and Monticello, said Jensen. And they could also take in Utah attractions like Hovenweep, Moab and Canyonlands.
While Monument Valley attracts visitors from all nations, Hoshino says it's the Japanese who are most enthusiastic over the sandstone spires and bluffs. And as tens of millions of Japanese learn that Monument Valley is in Utah, literally hundreds of thousands of Japanese tourist could make the trip, he said.
"The characteristic of the Japanese traveler is to confirm what he already knows or has heard, not to discover," said Hoshino. "Monument Valley is familiar to the Japanese people. They don't know where it is, but they recognize it."
All of which presents a tremendous opportunity for Utah businessmen willing to develop the area with first-class accommodations. And if Utah wants to capitalize on the international tourism in the Four Corners, it will have to happen.
Hoshino, who spends much of his time in Japan promoting Utah, said the Japanese have only just begun to discover Utah. As more learn about the state, the demand for facilities will grow.
Utah opened an office in Japan in 1984 to bring capital investment to Utah and to sell Utah goods in Japan. But what they found was that less than 1 percent of Japanese businessmen even knew where Utah is located.
"How can we convince them to put their money here if they don't know where we are?" Hoshino said.
The state's economic-development strategy then shifted to one of using tourism as a tool to bring economic development to Utah. If Japanese travelers become familiar with Utah, then Japanese businessmen will also.
"Monument Valley was something most Japanese were familiar with, and we used that as a tool to bring tourists to Utah," Hoshino said, adding that the Utah campaign also focused on Utah's five national parks.
The campaign is working. In the latest survey, Utah's name recognition was up to 27 percent.