Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Page, LeChee tour businesses stay busy during the slow season

Page, LeChee tour businesses stay busy during the slow season

TWIN LAKES, N.M. – Tourism is where an economy grows, said Page Mayor Bill Diak.

Tourism is only one of many contributors to Page, Arizona’s economy. The state’s warm weather and natural beauty made tourism the number one export industry in 2022, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Its beauty, Diak says, is what took him to the Page-Lake Powell area when he was young. He moved to Page in 1980, when he landed a job at the Navajo Generating Station, where he would work for 24 years.

“The region itself, we sit in such a beautiful area (near the) Colorado River, Lake Powell, Monument Valley,” Diak said, “all the slot canyons.”

Diak is originally from California. He was elected mayor in 2009 and held it for 10 years before losing re-election, taking a one-term break, then re-winning the seat in 2020. He said he enjoys being a Page resident because of the small-town community and its people.

This high demand in tourism is vital, and it feeds the Page businesses, including the Diné tourism businesses in and around LeChee, Arizona.

“We promoted as a destination to come out (and spend) a night,” Diak said, as the city had spent nearly $300,000 toward marketing for tourism last year. “We talk about all the things that are in and around us.”

According to Diak, most area tourism businesses are not promoted individually by the city but are advertised as a group. “That drives our economy,” he said. There are seven Diné tour operators around Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. Nine Diné tour operators operate in other area canyons, such as Tá’dídíín Tours’ Canyon X and Cardiac Canyon. Two helicopter tour operators, ABEARCO and IKG Air, are Native owned.

Diak said they are what help drive the economy with tourism dollars.

Economic growth for family

Wintertime allows tour operators, such as Tá’dídíín Tours to recoup resources, revamp the grounds, and allow staff to rest and recover.

Tá’dídíín Tours operations director Kendric Clitso, who is originally from Ts’ahbiikin, Arizona, said it gets guests that visit during the winter because it is quieter. “We have business travel partners that primarily cater to the international crowd, which keeps us busy during the wintertime,” Clitso said.

Tá’dídíín Tours was founded in 2016. Because the Page-Lake Powell area is known for being the center of the Grand Circle, Clitso said creating entertainment for existing traffic is the goal.

Antelope Canyon became a destination attraction itself and allowed the founders of Tá’dídíín Tours, Rita Tadytin-Tsinigine and her daughter, Jacqueline Tsinigine, to understand the demand for canyon tours.

“The purpose of operating a Diné tour business is opportunity,” Clitso said. “Tá’dídíín Tours has the opportunity to employ Navajo employees and create employment for families that keep households together.”

This allows Tá’dídíín Tours to achieve and develop its staff by providing scholarships to further education, providing employment for students returning to the Nation and seeking jobs to be the “next generation of leaders.”

“Tour guides have the ability to reach guests around the world with their perspective, control the narrative and change the perception of guests who have a tainted view on Indigenous people,” Clitso said. “We give a platform for our employees to interact with guests with the knowledge of Navajo culture and history,” which allows the Tá’dídíín Tour staff to create a more intimate experience.

Through recommendation and accommodation, Tá’dídíín Tours refers its customers to lodging, dining, and path trails in and around Page. “Page is a small town, and Tá’dídíín Tours wants to keep the traffic local because many local business owners are our neighbors,” Clitso said. Many of its professional services are contracted to Diné-owned small businesses.

Natural landscapes

It is said that slot canyons were discovered in 1864 by a group of Diné who escaped the Long Walk. In another story, the canyons were found in 1931 by a young Diné girl who came across the canyon while herding sheep.

These destinations that are prowled with tourists are what Diné tour guides share on their adventures because it is what tourists come for: to learn more about Diné culture.
Diné-owned and operated tour businesses are vital because they are how many families make a living, such as Ken’s Tour and its Brew It Coffee To Go. Tyra Brown, the general manager of Ken’s, said the tour company offers support to its workers.

“Sharing and educating our visitors from around the world of our culture, language, and stories,” Brown said regarding why Ken’s Tour exists. She is from Kaibeto, Arizona, and lives in Page.
Brown has been with Ken’s Tours for seven years and shared that aside from holidays, visitation volume does slow down in winter.

“Regional weather and road conditions play a huge part in decreased bookings,” she said. “However, we still have a steady stream of visitors. It’s a prime time to visit for those that enjoy a less crowded and quiet tour.”

In 1992, Kenneth and his wife, Emily Young, the owners of Ken’s Tours, started their tour business in Lower Antelope Canyon. In August 1997, 11 people perished during a flash flood in Lower Antelope Canyon, where Kenneth’s brother and wife took people on tours that day. The incident caused the Navajo Nation to close the area to visitors for a year.

During the closing period, many took an interest in the canyon, leading to trespassers, vandalism, desecration, trash, graffiti, human waste, and campfires between the slots that caused smoke stains on the walls. This resulted in the Nation revisiting and asking Ken’s Tours to reopen so it could watch over and preserve Lower Antelope Canyon. One condition Kenneth suggested was he would reopen if the Nation allowed him to build metal stairwells bolted into the canyon walls.

Given the frightful situation with his family members and visitors’ lives in danger during the flood, Kenneth suggested stairs would allow a quicker and safer exit. Brown said the Nation permitted Kenneth so he and his son, Kenny Young, and son-in-law Lloyd Pahi, built the original stairwells. Shortly after, the Nation allowed Kenneth and Emily to be sole operators of Lower Antelope Canyon.
This allowed Kenneth’s sister, Dixie Ellis, to open Dixie’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours. The siblings work closely to protect and preserve the canyon and area.

“Guides are very important,” Brown said. “For a short time that the visitors are with our guides, they get to learn about the history of the canyon, the Navajo people, and local area.”

More importantly, “It’s an experience,” and Lower Antelope Canyon is a “once-in-a-lifetime destination.”

Brown said Ken’s Tours is usually sold out for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s months in advance. The business operates year-round, except during monsoon season, when the tour business is closed on rainy days.

Antelope Canyon on the map

“Our town thrives off tourism for the most part,” said April Simmons, the manager of Antelope Slot Canyon Tours by Chief Tsosie. Simmons is married into Rosalind’s and the late Ray Tsosie’s ­family business.

Simmons, originally from California, has lived in Page for the last 15 years, as her father retired from the military and moved to Arizona. She moved to Page to work at Lake Powell, where she found herself working for the family business when she married her husband. She said tourists visit the area for the magnificent landscape and to learn from Diné first-hand by hearing stories and learning about history during the tour.

She suggests the best time to visit the canyon is at the end of March or early April, when the sunlight reflects off the wall to create a warm morning glow. The sunlight does not touch the ground in the canyon.

Antelope Slot Canyon Tours by Chief Tsosie partnered with Red Heritage – Native American Dinner Theater. Later this year, it will partner with Antelope Point Marina and RV Park to create more of an adventure for tourists and increase customer intake for the tourism business in the area.

This sparked and led Antelope Canyon Tours, another family-owned and operated business by a mother and son from Page, Carolene Ekis, and Arden Redshirt. Carolene is originally from Ts’ahbiikin.
The family business was established in 1987 and has been progressing since.

Currently, the business has 17 tour guides who are either Diné, married to a Diné, or from the Page-Lake area.

Redshirt said most people who visit Page, especially those who visit from overseas, want a “Native American experience.”

“They (visitors) are going out with people that are Native,” Redshirt said. “People come out from all around the world. Especially those around the area too, they want that experience.”

During the holiday season, people have time off. Redshirt said colder temperatures kick in once the holiday season ends and business becomes slow. But it picks back up in March, during spring break, and continues to boom until the next holiday season.

“We’re not really working with a lot of the hotels,” Ekis said.

“Back when we were starting out, we put ads in (other hotels) books, but of course, those are so obsolete now,” because nowadays people access information by using their phones and searching local attractions.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Navajo Nation shut down, leaving businesses to figure out how to recover. A year later, mask mandates were implemented, allowing businesses to open slowly. Antelope Canyon Tours and other tour businesses in the Page-Lake Powell area were closed for 485 days.

“Business, hotels were back open,” Ekis said. “Limited seating––what about us? It took some dealing to get back. We suffered.”

In some light, other area businesses almost coincide with one another.

“I actually put Antelope Canyon on the map,” Ekis said. “I did a lot of marketing. I went all over the world promoting it.”

Her late husband, Roger Ekis, began the business and told her to “run with it” and make him proud.

Carolene was recognized last year with the Arizona Office of Tourism’s Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2023 Arizona Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Tucson.

Hotel wanderlust

Area hotels like the Hyatt Place Page/Lake Powell also succeed. The Hyatt is in partnership with Ken’s Tours. Both businesses advertise and market their businesses online for their customers.

“We want to be busy all year around, but we also want to make those guests aware to explore in the area,” said Hyatt Place Manager Nadia Santa Cruz, who moved to Page in 2005 and has been living in Page for the past 28 years. She is originally from Sonora, Mexico.

Since the hotel’s establishment in 2018 and offering 102 rooms, the hotel strives to engage more visitors to stay there for a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” during the winter season.

This winter, the hotel created a “winter wonderland package” to attract tourists to stay at the hotel and experience the area with attractions.

“With the winter wonderland package, we want to make awareness of our guests that all these locations are great to visit throughout the winter months as they’re not as crowded as they normally are during summer or fall,” Santa Cruz said.

According to Santa Cruz, the Hyatt offers space to the Diné and Native artists to showcase their work by hosting arts and crafts fairs, storytelling nights, and music festivals, including mentioning Diné tours in the area.

“We’re excited about 2024 because we believe it’s going to be our strongest and most important year yet,” Cruz said.


About The Author

Boderra Joe

Boderra Joe is a reporter and photographer at Navajo Times. She has written for Gallup Sun and Rio Grande Sun and has covered various beats. She received second place for Sports Writing for the 2018 New Mexico Better Newspaper Awards. She is from Baahazhł’ah, New Mexico.

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