ALBUQUERQUE — Spending by visitors to the nation's largest American Indian reservation has increased by nearly one-third over the past several years, and Navajo Nation officials are pointing to word of mouth for the rise in interest for the reservation.
Spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation covers more than 27,000 square miles. It borders the Grand Canyon and sits on the southern edge of the sandstone cliffs, spires and red desert expanses that make up Monument Valley.
The Navajo Nation also surrounds the archaeological sites at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico and is home to Canyon de Chelly, where artifacts and cliff dwellings dating from the fourth to 14th centuries line the canyon walls.
A study by a Northern Arizona University research center for the tribe shows about 600,000 visitors made nearly $113 million in direct purchases on the reservation in 2011. That represents a 32 percent increase in tourism spending since 2002.
Albert Damon, head of the tribe's economic development division, said the tribe has many families and friends who are helping to promote the Navajo Nation as a destination.
"No amount of money can equate to positive word-of-mouth advertising," he said in a statement.
The economic impact study and yearlong survey show the number of U.S. visitors has declined since 2002 but visits by international travelers have increased by more than 11 percent in the last nine years. German and French tourists topped the list.
Tribal tourism officials were also encouraged by the study's finding that more travelers were making the Navajo Nation a primary destination, rather than just a stop on a longer trip.
In 2011, visitors spent most of their money on lodging, followed by transportation, arts and crafts, and meals and groceries.
Damon said the information is key to helping the tribe when it comes to marketing and tourism development. Right now, about 1,800 full-time jobs — from tour guides and museum staff to hotel workers — depend on the Navajo tourism industry.
Tribal leaders have been discussing the potential that lies along the East Rim of the Grand Canyon and the possibility of developing a resort and aerial tramway. With development, the Navajo Nation could realize more tourist dollars and jobs, but the tribe's plans face opposition from the National Park Service and environmentalists.