Dion Red Gun and his prized River Ranche Lodge have overcome everything from natural disasters to debilitating health problems.
COVID-19 is just one more obstacle he’s determined to persevere through.
“I’ve had to adapt and adjust to the changing winds,” Red Gun said. “It’s a challenge too because I’m high-risk myself.”
The extended closure of the Canada-U.S. border has left Alberta’s Indigenous tourism industry looking for new ways to grow business.
“Indigenous tourism across the country, especially Alberta, was seeing huge growth,” Indigenous Tourism Alberta Executive Director Shea Bird Said.
“It was such a new industry and there’s so much opportunity. It was the fastest-growing sector of tourism throughout the province.”
For Red Gun, it’s tough to lose American customers who have been visiting the lodge on Siksika Nation for more than a decade.
“This year was going to be a banner year for us with international visitors were coming from Switzerland and Germany,” Red Gun added.
“Moving into the summer season, we lost international clients and we were kind of shut down totally through March until recently where we were allowed to start reopening back in early June.
“That’s kind of devastating for us.”
Indigenous Tourism Alberta says nearly half its 89 members were in development or newly opened when the pandemic hit.
With international arrivals at a standstill, they’re hoping Canadians will continue to explore the land we live on through the winter months.
“We know that one in four domestic travellers are looking for some type of Indigenous experience on their vacations,” Bird noted. “Right now, we know that the demand far outweighs the current product capacity we have in Alberta.”
Red Gun says Indigenous tourism is also helping educate young people and preserve culture.
“We’ve got so much history on the land,” Red Gun said.
“My role now is to encourage the younger crowds because my history is oral. I didn’t read it in the book, the elders taught me and shared with me so that’s what I give for tourism.”
While businesses are preparing for more difficult months ahead, they’re confident they’ll still be here when the borders reopen and tourists return.