The Grand Canyon walkway

A controversial glass walkway over the Grand Canyon has divided the locals. By Mark Rowe

Vertigo sufferers are clearly not regarded as an important marketing niche by tourism authorities: this week a U-shaped glass walkway, resembling a giant surfboard, that juts out over the Grand Canyon will welcome its first paying customers.

The steel-reinforced walkway, 70ft long and just four inches thick, is designed to give tourists the thrilling sensation of striding out into thin air over the Grand Canyon, 4,000ft above the floor of the valley and the Colorado River. The project is expected to provide much-needed revenue for the Hualapai, a community of Native Americans that owns a million-acre reservation in Grand Canyon West, stretching for 100 miles.

The structure was formally secured earlier this month in a ceremony accompanied by a spiritual leader and tribal members playing gourds. But not everyone has welcomed the walkway. Dissenting voices have criticised the project as a blot on an outstanding landscape, while differences in opinion have emerged among the Hualapai community, where the issue of disturbing the land of their ancestors is a sensitive issue.

Critics have included Robert Arnberger, a former superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park, who dismissed the walkway as "an upscale carnival ride". Others feel the project is a further needless example of commercialisation in a place of natural beauty.

The plans were also opposed by a number of the Hualapai. Many of their warriors who died in past conflicts are buried in caves in the area, but no one is able to say precisely where they are. In an echo of Aboriginal concerns in Australia about certain tourist projects, some elders voiced their concern that the walkway may disturb their ancestors.

But the Hualapai, whose name means "People of the Tall Pine", decided by a majority vote to proceed, though the plan was finally approved by tribal elders only after a lengthy period of consultation. They argued that the economic advantages could not be ignored. Unlike other Native Americans, the Hualapai have not been able to benefit from the issuance of casino licences. Located 120 miles from Las Vegas, their reserve could not attract sufficient tourism revenue from gambling.

Instead, the skywalk is viewed as the key to allowing the Hualapai to benefit from tourism and will be economically important to a relatively unvisited part of the Grand Canyon. While the southern rim of the canyon receives about four million tourists a year, Grand Canyon West sees fewer than 200,000. According to the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, unemployment among the Hualapai is running at 70 per cent, and half the community lives on or below the federal poverty line. Proceeds from the skywalk will help, among other things, to develop a social fund.

Such issues were submerged by the fanfare last week, when the former astronaut Buzz Aldrin was among the first VIPs to step on to the walkway. The public can follow him this week, for a fee of $25 (£12.70). The opening represents the culmination of a $30m (£15.2m) joint venture between Las Vegas and Californian tour and property investors and the Hualapai. The Hualapai will own the skywalk but the main investor is understood to have agreed a contract to receive up to half the income from ticket sales for 25 years.

The skywalk is anchored to giant poles drilled 40ft into the canyon wall. The structure, say engineers, will be able to sustain winds in excess of 100mph as well as an 8.0-magnitude earthquake within 50 miles. Only 120 people will be allowed on the walkway at a time and, in a further nod towards safety, shoe covers will be provided in order to avoid slipping.

While the appeal of the walkway is its precarious setting, engineers assert the structure is secure and that they have overcome engineering concerns about the stability of the rock face into which the skywalk is drilled: the wall is made of 350-million-year-old limestone - porous material that is highly prone to erosion. Nature may well have the final say in the debate.

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