Cultural tourism is not only about dollars, it’s also about sense.

A sense of place.

A sense of who you are.

A sense of where you live.

That’s the mission underscoring efforts to advance cultural tourism in Alaska. As this segment of tourism continues growing national, Alaska tribes are making their history increasingly more accessible.

“It’s not just about the money,” said Emily Edenshaw, business and economic development director for Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “Yes, we can measure a number of visitors, how much time they are spending here, how much money they are spending here, but really the reason we are doing this is we want to change the narrative, we want to perpetuate our languages, our culture our tradition."

Edenshaw was among five panelists addressing a few hundred people attending the recent Alaska Travel Industry Association convention in Juneau.

Tlingit & Haida are planning to open an immersion waterfront park south of downtown Juneau in 2021. It will feature totem poles, a gift shop, Native foods, dancing and a carver’s workshop.

Tourism leaders and economic development directors say cultural tourism speaks to engagement and education.

“People come to Alaska and they think everybody is Eskimo or everybody lives in igloos because that’s what the outside world sees in Alaska,” said Ruby Steele, cultural tourism director for the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The center is open to visitors in the summer then dedicated to educating Alaska Native youth during the fall and winter months, Steele said. She said educating visitors often starts with instilling pride into the young folks.

“We strive to educate, perpetuate and strengthen the traditions of Alaska’s native people through the teaching of art, the teaching of language,” she said, “and to instill that pride into Alaska as a whole but more primarily into the Alaska Native community.”

According to the National Travel & Tourism Office, a division of the Department of Commerce, overseas visits to American Indian Communities including Alaska rose 9% in 2018 from the previous year. All overseas travel increased 3%.

Panel members, including Edenshaw and Steele said they would like Alaska to eventually do its own research to establish benchmarks and gauge growth.

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