What’s behind the growing interest in Indigenous-led tourism in Canada?

A Kermode bear, better know as the Spirit Bear is seen fishing in the Riordan River on Gribbell Island in the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C.
Click to play video: 'The growing interest in Indigenous tourism in Canada'
The growing interest in Indigenous tourism in Canada
WATCH: The growing interest in Indigenous tourism in Canada. – Apr 1, 2022

Florida. Mexico. Hawaii.

These are some of the family-friendly destinations that Canadians flock to by the thousands every year in search of sun and fun.

But as international resorts and hotels prepare to welcome visitors again following COVID-19 restrictions, there is another kind of travel that is getting a lot of attention … Indigenous cultural tourism.

“We’re seeing a lot of Canadians that do genuinely support Indigenous people in their communities, and they want to come learn and experience Indigenous culture and learn our ways of life,” says Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

Read more: Indigenous Guardians are patrolling the front lines of climate change

Indigenous cultural tourism refers to experiences that connect visitors with different cultures, traditions and ways of life. This includes Indigenous stewardship practices to protect land and water.

The Klahoose Wilderness Resort in Desolation Sound, BC. The Klahoose Nation purchased the lodge, and has transformed it into a tourist resort. Courtesy: Klahoose Wilderness Resort

“It’s traveling with intention,” says Chris Tait, tourism manager of the Klahoose Wilderness Resort nestled in Desolation Bay, B.C., just north of the Sunshine Coast.

That intention, he says, comes from a desire to learn. Visitors “are coming with the intention of having that connection with the people that live there.”

Click to play video: 'How Indigenous tourism can help reconciliation'
How Indigenous tourism can help reconciliation

Wilderness resorts, cultural experiences, guided walks and grizzly bear viewings are all part of a growing tourism industry that contributed $1.78 billion to the Canadian economy in 2019 and that employed 37,000 people.

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Read more: Indigenous Tourism accord signed in Kelowna to help boost growing economic sector

This week, a group of Indigenous leaders is in Rome meeting Pope Francis, part of a process of seeking redress for historical wrongs. The importance of reconciliation has, in turn, spurred “such a great interest among Canadians … to come learn, and experience Indigenous culture, and learn our ways of life,” says Henry.

And a new crop of resorts and experiences in some of the most pristine, unspoiled parts of the country is filling that need.

Boom times?  

Candace Dennis is gearing up for the summer travel rush.

“I feel I can use three of me right now,” she says.

Dennis is the CEO of an Indigenous-run tourism operation on Haida Gwaii, a rainforest archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia, and home to Indigenous Peoples for millennia.

The region used to be a mecca for fly-in, fly-out fishing expeditions – “as far from ecotourism as you can get,” Dennis says. “All of our resources, including salmon and halibut, are under pressure right now,” she adds.

These days, they’ve shifted their attention to cultural experiences that, among other things, immerse visitors in Indigenous stewardship of land and water.

A lodge and 12 brand new cabins on a giant sand dune overlooking the sea are part of the company’s shift to “more of a cultural experience for our guests,” Dennis says.

Click to play video: 'New campaign highlights Indigenous-focused tourism in B.C.'
New campaign highlights Indigenous-focused tourism in B.C.

Where a lot of visitors used to be from abroad, or in their older years, these days, she says, it’s young families that are driving the surge.

Often, it’s children who are curious to learn – and their parents follow suit.

“I think people are becoming a lot more aware,” Dennis says.

Read more: ‘Education is the key’: Why reconciliation needs to start with students

“What people are starting to realize is that tourism is a way not only to support the local economy, but actually to sustain and revitalize our culture,” says Henry.

That’s something Kathy Brown has been aware of for decades. A member of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council in B.C., and a pioneer in Indigenous tourism, Brown and her husband saw the potential in the late 90s when they launched canoe trips, sunset tours and barbecues in Tofino.

“We were ahead of our time,” Brown told Global News.

Indigenous-led initiatives, she says, are key to the success of the sector, and Brown says that begins with education.

Educational pioneers 

Using her contacts and experience, Brown helped to create a unique partnership program between the Heiltsuk Nation and two post-secondary institutions, Vancouver Island University and North Island College.

The two schools launched an Indigenous ecotourism program that focuses on place-based instruction: learning on the land, and not just in a classroom. “We want [students] to experience tourism as a tourist,” says retired program administrator Pam Botterill.
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It’s one of a growing number of programs in Indigenous tourism and entrepreneurship across the country.

One of the aims of the program, which is waiting for a new round of funding, is to instill confidence in the students to pursue more post-secondary education, says program instructor Suzanne de la Barre.

Read more: Canadian universities seeing increased demand for education on Indigenous history, issues

She explains how centuries of systemic racism, which is deeply ingrained in the education system, can make it “really intimidating” for Indigenous youth to come to university.

“The systemic racism issues that exist in Canada, in general, exist in our education system as well,” de la Barre told Global News. “So a lot of those students have fallen through the cracks, in terms of being able to come to university.”

Financial challenges 

But even with the right training, getting a business off the ground can be especially challenging for many prospective entrepreneurs in this sector.

“We don’t have the same access to capital. We don’t have entrepreneurs with other assets they can leverage,” says Henry. “We’re literally seeing entrepreneurs and communities start with, in some cases, very little resources to create a business,” he adds.

Add to that COVID-19 border shutdowns and restrictions.

Click to play video: 'The long road to recovery for Indigenous tourism'
The long road to recovery for Indigenous tourism

Pandemic restrictions hit the Indigenous tourism industry especially hard: more than a billion dollars in GDP contributions were lost, along with a 51 per cent decline in employment in 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic period.

Still, several Nations are leveraging their resources and skills — and are bouncing back.

A standup paddleboarder in Desolation Sound, B.C., near the Klahoose Wilderness Resort. Courtesy: Klahoose Wilderness Resort

B.C.’s Klahoose First Nation is among them.

In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the Nation purchased a lodge in Desolation Sound, north of Powell River, B.C. It retrofitted the building into a resort property and is gearing up to reopen in May. They’re filling up fast.

“It does take a lot of effort and capital to keep it running and to get the improvements up to where we need it to be,” says Tait.

Luckily, visitors are returning following the pandemic slump.

“Canadians,” Tait says “want to connect with Indigenous culture, Indigenous people. Tourism offers a way to do that.”