A gleaming, glass-bottomed walkway that juts out over the edge of the Grand Canyon welcomed its first visitors on Tuesday, with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin taking one small step for man and one almighty leap for sufferers of vertigo.
The Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped observation deck extending 21m over the western lip of the vast natural chasm in the remote Hualapai Indian Reservation, about 193km east of Las Vegas, Nevada, allows tourists to peer straight down a dizzying 1Â 220m to the canyon floor below through 10cm-thick reinforced glass.
“It felt wonderful,” said Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon after Neil Armstrong in the 1969 mission, after strolling around the walkway with members of the Hualapai tribe. “Not exactly floating on air or walking in space, but it was wonderful. It wasn’t the least bit disturbing — at least not for some of us.”
The Hualapai hope the Skywalk will help bring valuable tourist dollars to their impoverished corner of the Grand Canyon.
Architects say the gravity-defying structure is capable of supporting several hundred people simultaneously and will not be affected by powerful winds that often roar through the Grand Canyon.
Weighing roughly 500 tonnes, the walkway is constructed with layer upon layer of reinforced glass and supported by massive steel bolts that have been driven 14m into surrounding bedrock. Giant shock absorbers also will prevent the structure from quivering under the weight of visitors, architects say.
The project, which took two years to complete, is the latest example of Native American tribes seeking to generate income through tourism. The Hualapai are hoping that the Skywalk will persuade visitors to come to their remote section of the Grand Canyon, which previously struggled to lure tourists with its Old West-style villages and tours.
The Skywalk was dreamed up by Shanghai-born businessman David Jin. The Las Vegas-based investor is reported to have bankrolled construction of the $30-million project and under a deal with the Hualapai will collect up to half of the revenues from ticket sales over the next 25 years to recoup his investment.
Tickets for the Skywalk, which opens to the public on March 28, will cost about $25.
But construction of the project has been criticised by some Hualapai members and environmentalists, with several tribal members saying on Tuesday they had mixed feelings about the project.
“I’d say most Hualapai are opposed to it,” said Don Havatone (46), a tour guide. “It’s hard to accept. It’s sacred ground for us and we are disturbing it. But on the other hand I think people will grow to accept it if they can see that our children will benefit from tourism.”
Wilfred Whatoname, meanwhile, said he was dismayed that the Skywalk had been built overlooking Eagle Point, a dramatic geological formation shaped like a swooping eagle. According to ancient tribal beliefs, the spirit of the Hualapai’s ancestors rises upwards from the gorges surrounding the landmark.
“It’s taking away from our eagle, our sacred land,” said Whatoname. “I was opposed to it. But now I think we have to accept it is going to provide jobs for our children.”
Charlie Vaughn, the chairperson of the Hualapai tribal council, said members of the tribe had not complained when the project was first mooted.
“I took that silence to be consent,” Vaughn said. “I understand people are happy about the environmental impact, but when I balance that against what this could mean for our children’s future, those issues are put into perspective.”
Environmentalist Kieran Suckling, of the Centre for Bio-Diversity, meanwhile complained about the creation of a gleaming architectural marvel on the site of one of the natural wonders of the world.
“The Eiffel Tower is an architectural wonder,” he told CNN. “But do I want the Eiffel Tower on the edge of the Grand Canyon? No.” — AFP