Sublime tourist trap or logistical nightmare?


Take a moment to consider the greats:

giant ketchup

The world's largest ketchup bottle in Collinsville, Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Max Stahl)


 Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska.  (Photo courtesy of Ian, a.k.a. Sandstep).




the corn palace

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. And yes, the exterior is mural-ified entirely with CORN COBS. (Photo courtesy of discopalace)


two-headed calf

And of course, that classic Western roadside museum standby: The two-headed calf. (Photo courtesy of Bill Koontz)

But as stateside tourist traps go, the Grand Canyon Skywalk may trump them all, for its complications as much as its crazy charm.


The horseshoe-shaped platform, a joint project of the Hualapai Tribe and Las Vegas businessman David Jin, juts 70 feet into the open air from the canyon's west rim. As part of an all-access pass to the Hualapai's Grand Canyon West -- including meals, a walking tour of a faux Native American Village and more -- tourists who shell out around $90 apiece (including taxes, fuel and "impact fees") can shuffle out onto thick panes of structural glass and gaze between their soft-bootied feet some 4,000 feet down to the canyon floor and the Colorado River. If that sounds vertiginous and strange, consider what it would take to refurbish such a structure.

That $1.5 million operation got underway April 11, and is expected to be complete after one or two weeks. Turns out some 1.5 million visitors in 4 years -- not to mention the dusty desert air -- can scuff even the toughest of glass. The solution? Import some more! All the way from Spain!

The 46 glass panels, which measure 4 feet by 10 feet and are almost 3 inches thick,  "each weigh roughly the same as an old Volkswagen bug," reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

(The glass was first) shipped to Savannah, Ga., where all 82,000 pounds of it were loaded onto a single tractor-trailer that required special permits to haul such a heavy load. The truck arrived at the Skywalk after negotiating roughly 10 miles of dirt road ..."We didn't break a thing, thank God," (Project Manager Manuel) Mojica said.

But the really stomach-churning part comes in actually replacing the old panels with the new, which must be done at night. They are "flown" over the canyon by a 130-foot crane operating next to sheer cliffs, and the workers, negotiating open gaps in the walkway below and 2,000-lb glass panels swinging above, are harnessed and roped in. On top of that, the crane operator can't see them, so they must radio in their coordinates to keep from getting squashed.

The delicate, globally-sourced operation is as fascinating and bewildering as similarly complicated efforts to build an intake tunnel under Lake Mead or ship mind-bogglingly gigantic tar sands equipment across the Northern Rockies to Alberta. The really interesting stuff, though, is going on behind the scenes: More than just the Skywalk's glass has been falling apart.

The Hualapai and David Jin -- who secured tens of millions of dollars to finance the attraction on the condition that the tribe allow him to manage it and share in half the proceeds for 25 years -- have wrangled over revenue and construction from the start, reports The Arizona Republic. Now the tribe is trying to terminate that contract, charging that Jin's company, Grand Canyon Skywalk LLC, is remiss in completing construction on the visitor's center, which apparently still doesn't have sewer, water or electrical services, though the Skywalk itself opened in 2007. Jin, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this year to stop that attempt, charging that the Hualapai haven't fulfilled their contractual obligation to share revenue and have embezzled money from the project. Last week, Judge David Campbell declined Jin's request for an injunction.

If the tribe proceeds, though, it could have significant consequences, according to law professor and former director of the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Sarah Krakoff. The Republic reports:

Krakoff said she is not familiar with the case but foresees political and economic damage if a tribe uses sovereign power to nullify a contract with an outside investor. "There are risks for folks trying to do business in Indian country, and if it is perceived that those risks are heightening, that could spell a concern."

That's important because tribes often court outside investment to bring economic development to impoverished reservations (energy, for example, has been a major focus, sometimes with significant social consequences). After a failed gambling venture, the Hualapai turned to canyon tourism in hopes that the revenue and jobs it supplies will help overcome what HCN writer Emma Brown describes as "the stereotypical ills of Indian Country: poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and hopelessness." And Jin apparently helped the tribe get lots of its Grand Canyon West ventures off the ground, including helicopter and rafting tours.

Who knew you could get your jollies, glimpse the grinding gears of global economy at work, and brush up on your understanding of (or general confusion over) tribal sovereignty and the challenges of economic development, all at once? Now that's a view.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.

Skywalk photo courtesy of Michael McDonough

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