At Grand Canyon skywalk, controversial twist on eco-tourism
The Hualapai Indians' glass horseshoe over the lip of the national treasure stirs awe – and ire.
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With the latest development, the Hualapai believe they could finally mine real treasure from the vast swath of the Grand Canyon they control. The Skywalk, in fact, is just the most spectacular piece of a $45 million development plan on the reservation. Blueprints also call for a 6,000-square-foot visitors center, a vertical tram that will whisk people from the rim to the canyon floor, and more lodging. They will pave some of the washboard roads to make the trip to the glass menagerie seem like less of a Safari.Skip to next paragraph
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Something "had to be done for the future," says Ms. YellowHawk.
To boost tribal incomes, the first 30 Skywalk jobs were offered to Hualapai members, although not all could be filled because of educational deficiencies and other problems. Daniel Havatone says he didn't make the cut because he failed a drug test. Even so, he's enthusiastic about the development. "I hope it will attract more tourists and more people," he says. "That will help us."
Other tribal members are less enchanted. Many older Hualapai, in particular, consider their piece of the Grand Canyon holy and protest the project on those grounds. "They're mad and their hearts are hurting, but they don't talk about it anymore because it's such a hard thing for them," says Rhiannon Watahomigie.
Some outsiders bristle at commercializing such a sacred natural wonder in this way. What's next, they wonder, bungee jumping to the canyon floor? When he was superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park, Mr. Arnberger says he heard all kinds of proposals to make money from the canyon: tramways, hot air balloon rides – even stringing bras from one side of the rim to the other to raise awareness for breast cancer. "I turned all of that down," says Arnberger. "The Grand Canyon deserves special care by everyone responsible for it."
Admission is $50 to the Grand Canyon West region of the reservation and then another $25 for 15 minutes on the Skywalk. YellowHawk and Mr. Jin believe 2,000 people a day, or more than 600,000 people a year, will eventually visit the site. On this opening day to the public, the crowd is thinner – maybe 1,000 people – despite vast publicity surrounding the project.
Early visitors watched a trio of Hualapai elders shake gourds, chant tribal hymns, and cut the ribbon opening the Skywalk. Many then moved on to other sites. "There doesn't seem like there's that much of a line anymore," says Mike Cote of Chicago, who thinks the $75 cost for the Skywalk is too high. "There was such a rush to get people out here, and now it's sort of quiet."
YellowHawk is undeterred. She thinks tour operators will soon start including the Skywalk in their packages, and it will become a "must stop" for people visiting the Grand Canyon.
Future tourists will enter the Skywalk from the visitors center, which is expected to be completed by year's end. For now, they ascend a metal staircase and sit on benches to don hospital-style booties to protect the glass floor from scuffs. Most people, like Wells, seem tentative as they approach the place where the walkway becomes glass and the salmon abyss plunges below. Many admit feeling a sense of vertigo in their first steps. Once comfortable, some show confidence by jumping up and down. The floor doesn't quiver.
"Once you step out and the floor doesn't feel any different from other floors, you know you're safe and you can enjoy it," says Randy Holabird of Reno, Nevada.
The glass floor isn't seamless: It is laid out in huge square tiles with one-inch gaps between them. The glass wall railings along the Skywalk are only about five feet high, which can add to the sense of adventure and trepidation.
But none of this bothers Jayne Williams. "To me, I almost forgot that I was on top of all that space, and it was like looking at a picture window in the floor," says the Las Vegas resident.