Aztec visitors Gayle Bidwell, left, and boyfriend Jack Spey spend time inside the Great Kiva at the Aztec Ruins in 2010.
Aztec visitors Gayle Bidwell, left, and boyfriend Jack Spey spend time inside the Great Kiva at the Aztec Ruins in 2010. (Daily Times file photo)

AZTEC — This fall, Aztec Ruins National Monument received an $8,000 grant to better market its stature as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lauren Blacik, an Aztec Ruins park ranger, last week led an all-day meeting at City Hall for more than 20 members of the National Park Service, tourism officials and marketing specialists to brainstorm ways in which Aztec's national park could improve its reach through improved marketing techniques.

"The Four Corners is a prime area for World Heritage sites," Blacik said. Aztec Ruins and Chaco Culture National Historical Park were both inscribed as World Heritage sites in 1987.

Randy Durband, a tourism specialist and member of Tauck-Romano Innovative Philanthropy, a Connecticut non-profit foundation that promotes sustainability and education, gave a presentation on what the World Heritage brand has meant for more than 900 sites around the world and explored ways of marketing the areas using branding intended to increase visits at parks. He also promoted deeper awareness of and conservation for World Heritage sites. He said the sites -- including such well known destinations as the Taj Majal and the Statue of Liberty -- are on the list because of their invaluable contributions to natural and cultural heritage.

"Most people say, 'I don't know what it is, but it sounds good,' and that's what we have to do better, to market World Heritage as a brand," Durband said. "It should be a source of national pride, but, instead, we have total confusion."

The United States has 17 natural or cultural World Heritage sites, five of which are in the Four Corners area -- Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Taos Pueblo, and Grand Canyon National Park.

The 1972 World Heritage Convention, an international treaty written in Paris, was heavily influenced by U.S. involvement. Former President Richard Nixon brought an enthusiasm about the country's Nation Parks System. In its more than 40 years of existence, it has become the most-signed treaty for the conservation of natural and cultural heritage in the world.

"Most European countries have anywhere from 15 to as many as 48 websites dedicated to World Heritage," Durband said.

Durband told the group that foreign visitors to this area's sites are predominantly Canadian, French and German, which may be because of the average number of paid vacation days residents of those countries receive. Italy tops the list at 42, France follows at 37, Germany has 35 and Canada has 26. By contrast, Americans average 13 paid vacation days each year.

Durband recommended officials at area parks market themselves to the cultural traveler, a tourist type he says is better educated, has deeper pockets and tends to value natural resources and preserving them for future generations. He also said parks should take more frequent and in-depth visitor surveys and increase opportunities for junior ranger programs to ensure the value of the park is instilled at an early age.

Durband stressed the economic value of the World Heritage designation. He listed a string of sites throughout the world that saw numbers soar after being so designated.

"The city or site didn't change," he told the group. "The marketing did."

Larry Turk, superintendent of Aztec Ruins and Chaco, agreed the two parks he has overseen since 2011 saw gate numbers rise after receiving the designation in the late '80s.

"There was a big jump in visits then," Turk said. But it didn't last.

Gate numbers at Turk's two parks have declined by half since then, a statistic he would like to see jump back with improved messaging.

"The Pueblo people believed that Chaco is the center of the universe, where they emerged from into this world," Turk said.

Durband smiled and pointed toward Turk.

"There's your theme -- come to the center of the universe."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.