If you ask people what they’ve missed most during the pandemic, travel would likely be one of the top items on their list. The urge to vacation has been noticeable, with research by the International Air Transport Association showing that air travel increased over the summer. Varying quarantine requirements, however, mean international trips still pose a hassle.
But taking a holiday doesn’t have to mean going abroad. The Destination Indigenous website aims to point Canadian travellers to one-of-a-kind, memorable experiences closer to home.
Indigenous-led tourism experiences in Canada have long been appreciated by international travellers — yet widely overlooked by Canadians, many of whom are unaware of the abundance of destinations within the country.
Destination Indigenous highlights hundreds of experiences from coast to coast to coast. Travellers can find and book a grizzly bear viewing tour in British Columbia, a soak in lakeside hot springs in the Kootenays or a snowshoe across a winter landscape in Alberta that includes learning how to track animals.
All businesses featured on Destination Indigenous are vetted by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) to ensure the business is 51 per cent Indigenous-owned to support Indigenous culture and communities and provide what ITAC calls an “Original Original” experience — that is, authentic First Nation, Métis and/or Inuit experiences. This means travellers can be sure they’re choosing packages and tours that are Indigenous-led, not just activities marketed as such.
“People don’t realize how vibrant our culture and communities are,” says Keith Henry, president and CEO at ITAC. “Hollywood and the media have often portrayed us in a certain light, and people have certain stereotypes and expectations.” Finding experiences on Destination Indigenous is one way that Canadians can start to learn about Indigenous culture in a positive, fun and healthy way, he says.
Many of the destinations incorporate education with an immersive experience, making for meaningful trips.
“People often forget Indigenous People lived on those lands and in those harsh conditions for thousands of years,” Henry says. The travel experiences featured on the site help give a real-life understanding of how resourceful and innovative Indigenous Peoples were, he adds.
He hopes that more Canadians will consider supporting Indigenous-led tourism, as some businesses previously relied exclusively on international markets and have suffered a dramatic impact during the pandemic. “We still have 700 to 1,000 businesses at risk of permanent closure forever, and that’s a very substantial number of our businesses,” he says.
David Daley, owner and operator of Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, Man., knows that struggle well. Wapusk Adventures offers a dog-sledding and Métis cultural experience where visitors get to learn about their connection to the land and the animals, as well as go on a one-mile dog-sledding ride on specially designed carts and sled. The company also provides aurora viewing and e-bike tours.
“My Indigenous tourism experiences are a little different than a lot of other tourism businesses like area tours with buses” because they involve dogs, Daley says. “We can’t just park them and not have them moving and enjoying what they’re bred to do, which is pulling sleds.” Rather than shut down during the pandemic, Daley had to continue paying the costs of keeping 38 dogs, including food and vet bills, without income from tourism.
Daley has also had to adapt to changing mandates for travellers’ safety. He constructed a log building for a hand-washing station and offers an outdoor program when mask-wearing is in effect.
He’s hoping that Manitoba doesn’t get shut down again. “Everybody’s excited about the tourism coming back so that we can start making a living again,” he says — “everybody” meaning tourism members in his Churchill community, including Indigenous trappers who show tourists how they harvest animals, Arctic guides and polar bear viewing companies like Wat’chee Expeditions.
“That’s how we make our community grow and prosper is through tourism,” Daley says.
When asked about some of his favourite travel experiences, Keith Henry praises Wendake near Quebec City, which he says is a truly Indigenous destination where visitors can stay at the four-star Premières Nations hotel and enjoy delicious Indigenous culinary experiences as well as lots of activities, such as visits to the Huron-Wendat Museum.
Another experience he touts is a week-long canoe trip along the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories with North Star Adventures. Their guides offer an Indigenous approach by explaining the river systems and how people survive, providing a different lens on what could be a generic canoe experience.
“I think that’s what people are looking for: something different and exciting and something they haven’t done before,” Henry says.
Want to get inspired or book your next vacation? Visit Destination Indigenous to learn more.