In 2019, Canadian tourism had its best year on record — so did Canada’s Indigenous-tourism sector, which, according to Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) data, was outpacing Canadian tourism activity overall. Of course, the years since have seen drastically different results.

As The Impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s Indigenous Tourism Sector: 2021 Update indicates, “It appears that drastic losses in direct employment and GDP have resulted from COVID-19’s impact on the Indigenous-tourism sector.” The impact assessment, commissioned by TIAC and conducted by the Conference Board of Canada (CBOC), projected a 57-per-cent decline in direct GDP (down from $1.78 billion) and a 51-per-cent decline in employment (down from approximately 37,000) 2019 and 2021, which represented a modest recovery from 2020 results.

The report also indicated that 647 businesses — just over a third of the sector’s total — remained at risk of permanent closure in 2021-2022 due to continued pandemic impacts. This includes 229 Arts & Heritage businesses, 142 in accommodations and 102 Recreation & Outdoor Activities businesses.

Because this sector has historically relied on international travel for more than 45 per cent of its business, with many businesses designed specifically to cater to international markets, recovery has been slow. This, explains Keith Henry, president & CEO of ITAC, also means that the Indigenous-tourism sector has had to make major shifts and implement new strategies in order to survive and recover from the collapse of international tourism.

In many cases, Henry notes, previously established international sales channels have not re-opened yet and may even need to be re-established and relationships re-built following the significant disruption that occurred.

“[The CBOC impact analysis] showed us that we were the hardest of the hard hit,” shares Henry. And the information outlined in the report has played a significant role in shaping ITAC’s new national strategy ‘Building Back Better’ — the main goal of which is to return the sector to pre-COVID levels of GDP contribution, employment and number of businesses by 2025.

“There are a few exceptions to this, but by and large, [Indigenous-tourism businesses] have seen a massive decline in revenues,” says Henry. “[As a result,] we’ve had to take over facilitating a massive marketing campaign over the last two summers.” This, he adds, was especially pertinent because the marketing had to shift to target domestic travellers.

To this end, Henry shares: “We created the Destination Indigenous platform, we created new packages and we generated roughly 215,000 sales leads last summer — and many of those were executed to a full sale.”

Marketing efforts are key because “the reality is, most people don’t know where to find it,” says Shae Bird, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Alberta (ITA). “We know there’s incredible demand for indigenous tourism,” he explains, but as it stands, if travellers aren’t specifically searching for Indigenous-tourism experiences during the idea phase of their planning, it’s very unlikely they will be presented with these products. This makes marketing support crucial in facilitating recovery and survival — especially given that we are entering what Bird deems “the most critical summer our industry [has] seen in a very long time.”

This calls into focus a key issue Bird identifies within the current support systems (especially federally), which have a heavy focus on investing in product development. The issue, he explains, is “there’s no [support] dollars to actually market that product…Regardless of how many great products you develop, if our potential clientele doesn’t know about them, then they’re going to ultimately fail.”

“[ITA’s] priority right now is pushing a very dynamic and efficient digital-marketing campaign this summer,” Bird adds. “That’s the most important piece for us moving into the summer and, in my opinion, that’s how we should all be thinking right now.”

On this front, industry partnerships are a fundamental avenue of support for the sector. Bird points to partnerships with DMOs such as Explore Edmonton and Travel Alberta as being “so monumental in providing the support [ITA’s] needed, from a customer perspective.”

However, attracting guests is only one facet of the challenges that lay ahead of Indigenous tourism. Through the course of the pandemic, the concepts of market and export readiness have shifted as digitization accelerated and expectations around digital presence have changed.

As Henry notes, these kinds of shifts are expected to have lasting impact “and a lot of our businesses are going to have to rely more heavily on online sales tools.” This poses a challenge, he explains, “[because] the truth is, of our 1,900 businesses, there are several hundred that have not built an effective strategy for digital presence.”

To address this gap, ITAC has been implementing the Project RISE accreditation program (in partnership with Ottawa-based Tourism HR Canada) to help Indigenous-tourism businesses achieve market and export readiness. This solution both identifies gaps in businesses’ existing strategies and aligns supports to address these gaps.

But the greatest hurdle to market readiness is having the staff in place to effectively operate businesses and facilitate experiences.

“We need to replace 21,000 jobs and it’s not that there’s not people that could work in them,” states Henry. The problem, he explains, is that the tourism industry has suffered a blow to its reputation as a stable employer and economic-development venture. “What’s scary about that is, if we don’t find the qualified, effective Indigenous staff, we can’t sell authentic Indigenous experiences,” he stresses.

While the labour-force challenge is felt across the industry, Bird explains that increased barriers to recovery supports, combined with ongoing uncertainty has amplified the challenge for ITA members — and Indigenous tourism businesses overall. And, he notes, this challenge is one of financial constraints, as well as human capital. “The number-1 challenge we’re hearing from our businesses and membership, is that they just don’t have dollars to pay their staff,” says Bird.

Operators are also having to weigh the risk of staffing up while it remains uncertain what travel and visitation will look like this year. “There are a lot of variables and unknowns out there and our businesses are having a really hard time adjusting their business to ensure that they’re able to provide a quality experience and have the staff capacity to manage expectations while not knowing if we’re going to have full visitation this summer,” Bird explains.

And, as Bird passionately points out, ensuring the recovery of Canada’s Indigenous tourism sector is about far more than supporting local businesses. “We often talk about the economics, the demand and the opportunities, but there’s also a social responsibility that we have in terms of supporting Indigenous tourism, Indigenous businesses, economic and cultural sovereignty and [understanding] how we do that in an authentic and appropriate way,” he stresses. “[There are great] social benefits of Indigenous tourism: cultural revitalization, language revitalization, providing community and culture to communities that haven’t had that opportunity — you can’t even quantify the power of this. Indigenous tourism is the number-1 tool towards reconciliation.”

By Danielle Schalk


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