By Bob Hoelscher
The son of respected Navajo educators, Donovan Hanley graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 1997 fully intending to become a secondary school teacher, and he did teach social studies and history at Gray Hills Academy High School in the Navajo Nation.
However, after also teaching classes in the school’s hospitality program for three years, he caught the tourism “bug” permanently, helping propel him into his current position as director of sales for the Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise, based in Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix.
“As one of 13 tribal enterprises, we own three Quality Inns in Tuba City, Window Rock and Page, as well as the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum in Tuba City, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, and our original Travel Center in Navajo Springs,” Hanley said.
“We are under the jurisdiction of the five-person Natural Resources Board appointed by the Navajo Nation Council, as are such other tribal units as the Navajo Tourism Office, Navajo Nation Parks, and Navajo Arts and Crafts.”
Hanley said that Navajos began to embrace tourism more seriously in the mid-1990s, although the benefits of attracting visitors were initially apparent only to individual members of the tribe.
“Since the tribe labeled it economic development, many Navajos, especially older people, did not recognize it as tourism but just as restaurants, hamburgers and fries,” said Hanley. “Similarly, the community at Canyon de Chelly actually ran tours for visitors to the national monument but saw it as just a job, not as an important component of tourism.
“So our efforts within the Navajo Nation have largely been an educational process, attempting to mesh cross-cultural immersion, plus sharing our natural attractions and the dances and entertainment we can provide, into an understanding of what constitutes an attractive and salable tourism product.
“Politics also occasionally gets in the way. After all, politics is politics in whatever culture. Part of our challenge has been educating our politicians on the experiential visits that tourists desire.”
Hanley readily admits that he does more destination marketing than hotel sales. He sees his job as promoting the entire Navajo Nation and also is active in the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association, which boasts a membership of 22 different tribes.
“Some communities get bogged down with one special event, but the bigger picture is attracting visitors year-round,” he said. “Nevertheless, as more and more tribes have become involved in the tourism effort, buyers — tour operators and travel packagers — have come to appreciate speaking with tribal members who know and understand the real situation.
“To be successful in the hospitality industry, one first must have the personality and customer service ingrained,” he said.
For more information on sights such as Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, the Colorado River Gorge, the Bow Canyon Recreation Area and Four Corners Monument, as well as Navajo shopping centers and casinos, visit www.explorenavajo.com.
Hanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-412-0297.