New Visit Native California Program Encourages Travelers to Connect With State’s Indigenous Cultures

The new Native-led initiative seeks to showcase the rich cultures of the state’s 109 federally recognized tribes.

Agua Caliente Reservation

California is home to the largest Native American population in the country—Visit Native California hopes to connect travelers to the state’s rich Indigenous cultures.

Photo by Visit California/Max Whittaker

Tribal leaders from across California and the United States gathered with state tourism officials in Palm Springs on Wednesday to announce a landmark initiative for the state—the launch of Visit Native California. Created in partnership with Visit California, the state’s tourism marketing agency, the new effort aims to directly connect travelers with native-led and -designed programs across the Golden State. The ultimate goal is to encourage visitors to explore California’s Indigenous cultures with purposeful trips and experiences that go beyond Native-owned resorts and casinos.

California boasts a rich Indigenous history and there are currently 109 federally recognized tribes throughout the state, representing about 720,000 people—the highest Native American population of any state in the country. The sizes of tribes varies greatly; the Yurok community of Northern California, one of the few tribes to have never been removed from their ancestral homelands, have around 6,300 enrolled members, while the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians have the smallest population, with just 11 registered members. Though some have been lost, California was once home to 64 distinct Native languages.

Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation

Located just outside of Palm Springs, the reservation of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians is one of the smallest in the state—they’ve converted their land into an organic farm.

Photo by Visit California/Max Whittaker

While many tribes have promoted their tourism experiences locally, prior to the launch of Visit Native California, there wasn’t a state-level agency focused on promoting and marketing Native-led travel experiences, such as Montana’s Tribal Tourism Development Project or North Dakota’s Native Tourism Alliance (which date back to 2017 and 2016, respectively). The new initiative aims to become the go-to resource for information about Native cultural tourism opportunities and hopes to help tribes across the state carve out a space for themselves in California’s lucrative tourism market.

Funding for the project comes from a $1 million federal grant from the American Rescue Plan Act, legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021 that seeks to relieve economic and public health impacts of the pandemic. In the project’s initial stages, money will be put toward building Visit Native California’s online platform as well as promoting curated itineraries, museums, restaurants, outdoor activities, and cultural centers through social media and online influencers. This “first wave” of content is set to debut in March 2023. In its later phases, funding will be put toward helping tribes design more experiences—although there’s already existing culture programming throughout California, including redwood dugout canoe adventure tours of the Klamath River hosted by the Yurok people and guided walking tours with the Me-Wuk tribe in Tuolumne County.

“As the state with the highest population of Native Americans, and one of the nation’s leading tourism destinations, California is poised to drastically boost national Native tourism promotion and interest with this undertaking,” Sherry Rupert, CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, stated in a release. Rupert was also in attendance at the Visit Native California launch. “We’ve seen the economic benefits that come from uniting under a common banner, but more importantly we see the power of cultural tourism to support preservation and perpetuation of our culture.”

The launch of Visit Native California was kicked off at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in Palm Springs, which is set to officially debut next spring. Spanning six acres in the city’s downtown, the new facility will be home to a museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Agua Caliente people, extensive gardens, and the “Spa at Séc-he,” where visitors can enjoy such therapeutic treatments as massages and halotherapy. The Agua Caliente people have lived in the Palm Springs region for thousands of years—there are about 500 members today.

Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza

The soon-to-debut Agua Caliente Cultural Center will showcase the history and culture of the Agua Caliente people.

Photo by Visit California/Max Whittaker

“This project and this site gives my tribe the opportunity, the ability to share our culture,” said Reid D. Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, at the press conference. “This is us.”

The Visit Native California project comes during a time of healing and recovery for California’s tourism industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 alone, California was projected to have lost $72.8 billion in tourism spending. Tribal communities were among the hardest hit in the state both economically and in regard to public health. The new initiative promises to be a way for tribes to not only financially benefit but also help share their cultures with new audiences who are eager to have deeper and more meaningful connections when they travel.

“When we share our culture, we help preserve it,” said Milanovich.

Mae Hamilton is an assistant editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.