California, tribal leaders announce new tourism initiative

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — In a state with the second most federally recognized indigenous tribes in the country, California officials and tribal leaders announced Wednesday an initiative to boost tourism in Native communities.

The initiative, Visit Native California, and the accompanying website, is funded by a $1 million grant from the American Rescue Plan Act, which targets the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic and was signed into law by President Joe Biden last year. The Tribes announced it in partnership with Visit California, the state’s primary tourism marketing agency.

It’s one of the latest efforts to revitalize tourism across the country after the early stages of the pandemic brought travel — and the expenses that come with it — to a halt. California lost an estimated $72.8 billion in tourism spending in 2020, according to research of Tourism Economics, a data and consulting firm. The aim is to inform tourists about the music, art, nature and history that have shaped tribal communities for generations. The site will promote places around the state, including through podcasts, and provide itineraries for travelers.

“This project, this site, it gives my tribe the opportunity, the opportunity to share our culture,” Reid D. Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, said at a news conference at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in Palm Springs.

The plaza, which will open next year, hosts the 48,000-square-foot Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, a trail and spa at the sacred mineral hot spring of Agua Caliente. Other tribal sites promoted by the campaign include the Barona Cultural Center and Museum in Lakeside, California, and a cultural center in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles.

Milanovich, whose ancestral land sees 200,000 annual visitors, said he hopes the initiative leads to similar ones in other states.

“I’m optimistic and hope that other states across the country see what we’re doing here in California,” Milanovich said. “The state and the tribes working together on tourism is a win-win.”

Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, estimates the organization has been in contact with more than a dozen of California’s 109 tribes in advance of the initiative’s launch, set for March 2023.

Leaders involved in the initiative hope it provides a chance for visitors to become more informed about the history of tribal lands.

“Cultural tourism for us is so important for many, many reasons,” said Sherry Rupert, president and CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.

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Sophie Austin is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues. Follow Sophie Austin further Twitter.

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