AZTEC — Aztec's got a new cheerleader.
Wilann Thomas has been promoted to supervisor of tourism and marketing, though she's a familiar face to anyone who has dropped by the Aztec Visitor Center on Ash Street over the last three years. Thomas, an Aztec resident since 2001, was formerly a customer service representative at the center.
"We need to get our secret out there because tourism is a good industry — a great industry," Thomas said. "I say great because I'm a traveler. I like to absorb it all wherever I go. Now I get to try to help people who are exploring our area."
Raised in a military family, Thomas lived in Germany as a child. She has lived in nearly every state in the western half of the U.S. and has traveled the globe as an adult — to China, South Korea, the Netherlands, Mexico and Canada. Her last trip abroad was six weeks in Israel, a trip she undertook to explore the homeland of her adoptive faith, Judaism.
"Israel was my favorite. I stayed in a neighborhood with a family, lived in the community, meeting new people and experiencing what living there is like," she said. "I was there during the Columbine shooting and rode the bus with 18-year-olds carrying guns (Israeli youth must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces), and I never felt safer. Traveling gives you a different mindset."
Thomas came to Aztec in 2001 on behalf of her church in Tacoma, Wash., and decided to stay.
She has worked for several nonprofit organizations, including Navajo Ministries and San Juan County Safe Communities before working for the visitor's center. Thomas is also on the board of directors of the San Juan County Historical Society and was recently appointed president of the Aztec Chamber of Commerce. But more than any of her titles, Thomas likes to call herself Aztec's cheerleader.
Thomas has lately been cheering visitor numbers at the center, which she said are double what they were this time last year.
"This area is rich with resources and exciting outdoors spots and lots of history," she said. "Our downtown has the historical walk and a lot of America's losing that. They went a different way, but we kept ours and it has a value. I get to cheerlead for a community that I've really grown to care about. It's not podunk — it's top-notch."
Thomas enjoys her new job and looks forward to ensuring people who explore Aztec's arches, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Navajo Dam, historic downtown and the many other area destinations plan to return.
"My goal is to not just help visitors find a particular spot but to ask them what else they'd like to see, what's next. A couple from Germany came in recently with an email from friends in France telling them they had to go to Cox Canyon, and I was pulling all kinds of info for them," she said. "How cool is that? That they want to see Cox Canyon arches, and they flew all the way over here to experience our area. We have five World Heritage sites — Taos, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, our Aztec Ruins and Chaco — all within a day's drive. I mean, who wouldn't want to come here?"