Has Grand Canyon Skywalk Helped the Hualapai?
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
OK. We're not in Kansas anymore. We're in Arizona, stepping out carefully on the glass platform known as the Grand Canyon Skywalk. It was built by the Hualapai Indian tribe, which is banking its economic future on demand for a thrilling experience. The glass horseshoe-shaped bridge opened a year ago and juts far out over a breathtaking 4,000-foot drop. The hype surrounding the debut was enormous and the impoverished Hualapai hoped that hype would translate into income.
NPR's Ted Robbins went back for another visit to see if it has.
TED ROBBINS: The last time I put on surgical booties to avoid scratching the glass floor of the Grand Canyon Skywalk I was surrounded by TV crews from around the world. All that publicity seems to have worked. Today, I'm surrounded by paying customers from around the world - Europe, Australia, Asia. People like Jane and Paul Lucas on their honeymoon from Black Pool, England.
Mr. PAUL LUCAS (Tourist from England): Absolutely amazing.
Ms. JANE LUCAS (Tourist from England): It's hard to think of words.
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah.
Ms. LUCAS: We were just saying, How are we going to describe it at home, because you just can't.
BANCHI (Tourist): Beijing, yeah.
ROBBINS: Tell me your name.
BANCHI: Banchi(ph). Banchi.
ROBBINS: What do you think? How are you feeling?
BANCHI: Very nice.
ROBBINS: He may be shaky, but his currency is stable. Favorable exchange rates help explain why 70 percent of Skywalk visitors are foreign. Most of them combine the visit here with a vacation in Las Vegas - 120 miles away.
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Helicopters, planes and buses constantly move people in and out. A full day here at what's called Grand Canyon West includes the Skywalk, a helicopter ride to the canyon floor, a short raft trip on the Colorado River, and a tour of Hualapai sacred sites.
Since last year, nearly a half million people have come to Grand Canyon West, which is not part of Grand Canyon National Park. They spend between $100 and $400 each. That's money to hire more tribal firefighters and police and 500 workers here.
Lola Wood is assistant general manager.
Ms. LOLA WOOD (Assistant general manager, Grand Canyon West): It's provided an opportunity for us to allow Hualapais to have jobs and to buy the nice things that everybody else in America gets to buy. You know, you are seeing, you know, a new couch, not a rental couch. You know, a nicer car.
It's been a struggle to keep up with the sudden growth in visitors. The Hualapai are enlarging their airport and building a three-story visitor's center, gift shop, restaurant and museum at the Skywalk entrance.
The museum will showcase native culture, because next to the money the Hualapai say sharing their culture is the biggest opportunity here.
Mr. WILFORD WATANAMI (Hualapai, Grand Canyon West): Nice to meet you.
ROBBINS: Outside the skywalk, Wilford Watanami Junior(ph) welcomes visitors like Helen Thompson from Denmark.
Mr. WATANAMI: So how's everything out here?
Ms. HELEN THOMPSON (Tourist from Denmark): Great.
Mr. WATANAMI: Great?
Ms. THOMPSON: Yes.
Mr. WATANAMI: Did you do the Skywalk?
Ms. THOMPSON: No.
Mr. WATANAMI: No?
Ms. THOMPSON: No.
Mr. WATANAMI: Why?
Ms. THOMPSON: I'm afraid of heights.
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ROBBINS: Watanami wears traditional native dress - shell necklace, eagle feather in his hair. Visitors from overseas tell him this is the first time they've ever met a Native American.
Mr. WATANAMI: One thing they always mention, too, is, oh, you speak English. You speak good English. And so, you know, yeah, you know, we went to school and, you know, we're educated. I mean, you know, you get that almost every day.
ROBBINS: For Assistant General Manager Lola Wood the visitors have been a blessing, though sometimes a mixed blessing. After all, the Hualapai gave up some of their sacred land to development.
Ms. WOOD: It was a big sacrifice the tribe made. And if you sacrifice something you want it to be appreciated. And a cigarette butt on the ground is not a sign of appreciation.
ROBBINS: In a few years, the Hualapai hope to replace diesel generators with wind and solar power, to have more housing nearby, and to pave an 18-mile dirt road to Grand Canyon West. They hope it's part of the road to prosperity.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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