By Nicole Di Tomasso
With a growing interest in experiential and sustainable travel, Canada is seeing a revitalization of Indigenous tourism, offering both domestic and international travellers an opportunity to connect with diverse cultures while providing Indigenous peoples and communities a path towards economic empowerment, cultural preservation and sustainable development.
The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), representing more than 1,000 membership businesses that are at least 51 per cent Indigenous-owned or controlled, has been at the forefront of this recovery, with support from its national, provincial and territorial partners.
Demand for Indigenous tourism was on the rise prior to the pandemic, contributing nearly $1.9 billion in direct GDP, accounting for 1,900 businesses and employing 40,000 people. Among a sector devastatingly affected by the pandemic, Indigenous tourism saw an estimated 70-per-cent reduction in GDP contributions and a loss of 21,000 jobs. Ultimately, ITAC’s goal is to return Indigenous tourism to peak 2019 levels by 2025, as outlined in its 2023-24 Action Plan. Beyond recovery, ITAC aims to make Canada the global leader in Indigenous tourism by 2030, with an estimated contribution of $6 billion in GDP annually.
ITAC’s 2023-24 Action Plan is based on four pillars — leadership, partnership, development and marketing — and builds upon its 2022-23 Action Plan. The first pillar, leadership, focuses on advocating for the Indigenous tourism industry at a federal level to gain support for operational and infrastructure projects and expanding participation and representation in national-level tourism organizations such as the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), Parks Canada and Destination Canada. Activities under this pillar include delivering $10 million in national tourism funding in partnership with provincial and territorial partners and working with the federal government to deliver $10 million as part of the Indigenous Tourism Destination Fund (IDTF), among others.
Launched in September, the IDTF offers an opportunity for travellers, Indigenous businesses and non-Indigenous companies to actively participate in and support Indigenous tourism development with regard to infrastructure, product development, workforce and marketing initiatives. A USD $100,000 investment from Expedia Group marked the inaugural investment into the fund. Additionally, whether percentage based or a flat fee, businesses can select a contribution model that’s passed to the end consumer. Keith Henry, president & CEO of ITAC says approximately 20 companies have signed up so far.
“We still need long-term commitments from federal, provincial and territorial governments for certain infrastructure supports,” says Henry. “We’re continuing to encourage all levels of government to see Indigenous tourism as an important investment. We don’t have the same structural opportunities as traditional destination-marketing organizations and we don’t get hotel tax revenues to sustain our industry, so we depend largely on government programs and investments.”
Under the second pillar of partnerships, ITAC is working with provincial and territorial associations to provide $1.5 million in support funding for the The Original Original Accreditation Program, which is both a mark of authenticity and a brand of excellence, and is gearing up to host the 2024 International Indigenous Tourism Conference (IITC) in the unceded Algonquin Anishinaabeg Territory in Ottawa from February 26 to 28, 2024. The conference theme, Where Nations Meet, symbolizes the convergence of diverse Indigenous nations, cultures and perspectives. Additionally, ITAC aims to increase membership by five per cent by the end of the year.
“We want conference attendees to understand how far our industry has come,” says Henry. “This is a major opportunity to showcase the best Indigenous tourism development in the country,” adding that approximately 1,300 delegates are expected to attend, including 200 to 300 international delegates from up to 10 countries.
The third pillar, development, includes implementing ITAC’s accreditation program to help businesses meet market and export readiness; providing $1.5 million for provincial and territorial operational and project costs; developing guidelines for retail spaces through a $25,000 fund from Parks Canada; and more.
“The Original Original Accreditation Program ensures that Indigenous businesses, regardless of type or size, are truly Indigenous owned and operated and are market or export ready,” says Henry. “We’ve been implementing the program for the last two years and are hoping to see another 300 businesses go through the process by the end of the year.”
Henry continues, “What’s not in the plan that we’ve since updated internally is a three-day tourism reconciliation training certificate. We want to continue providing non-Indigenous companies and organizations with a better understanding of how to support economic reconciliation for Indigenous tourism. They play a role and often don’t think they do,” adding the training sessions began rolling out across the country in October.
Destination Indigenous, ITAC’S travel brand, recently launched DiscoverIndigenousTourism.ca to help address the labour crisis and increase business visibility. Currently, the portal contains at least 100 job advertisements.
“Our members are looking for Indigenous employees and we’re also competing for employees from other sectors,” says Henry. “We received many requests and it got to be too much for us to handle, so we created this job portal to record all the information and we’re very proud of it.”
The final pillar, marketing, focuses on continuing to promote Indigenous tourism and its positive community and cultural impacts with targeted marketing, as well as research, media and sales efforts. With a $3 million marketing campaign, ITAC promotes the accredited businesses; increases direct sales efforts for businesses with online reservation systems; and establishes a larger presence in key airports and other significant places.
Here, Hotelier highlights a few Indigenous-led businesses within Canada that are sharing their stories, cultures and traditions with the world.
Kwa’lilas Hotel, Port Hardy, B.C.
The Kwa’lilas Hotel showcases the heritage of the Gwa’sala Nakwaxda’xw people. Built by the k’awat’si construction company, the “design of the building as a whole mimics a big house. Guests are greeted with massive cedar pillars and it’s incredibly unique. It’s one of the most prominent architectural elements to reflect Indigenous culture,” says Andrew Nixon, Business Development and Marketing manager.
Inside, many expressions of Indigenous culture can be found. In the lobby, an 18-foot copper feature wall, created by Coast Salish artist Shain Jackson, depicts the history and legends of the Gwa’sala Nakwakda’xw people.
“There’s also a button blanket on display in the lobby,” says general manager Robert Hodson. “Traditionally, button blankets are only to be used in ceremonies but we’ve been given explicit permission by the elders to display it. We’ve acquired a variety of new artworks from local world-class artists that will be showcased at an art gallery on site, including a mix of cedar products, masks, ceremonial gowns, headdresses and shawls.”
The hotel’s newest fine-dining restaurant, Ha’me, is slated to open before the end of year, “where guests will find elements from the territory that have been re-purposed,” says Nixon. “Guests aren’t just walking into a hotel that’s themed Indigenous; it is Indigenous.”
Voyageur Wilderness, Nym Lake, Atikokan, Ont.
Founded in 1960, Voyageur Wilderness has been a family-owned and operated business for three generations, offering canoe adventures, outfitting and accommodations to its visitors. Guy Savoie and his family took over the operation in 1986, and over the years, Voyageur Wilderness has been developed further to highlight the culture and history of Indigenous peoples and Métis Voyageurs on Canada’s heritage canoe routes in Quetico Provincial Park, a world-famous destination with more than 2,000 lakes and 46,000 hectares of remote wilderness.
“The canoe speaks to the way of life for Indigenous peoples,” says owner Michelle Savoie. “It’s not only a recreational craft, but also a representation of community, family and connection. The canoe gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in nature.”
Throughout the property, Savoie says there is “regalia, artifacts and family heirloom that link us back to the stories of our family and the connection to the land. In our accommodation, there are different headdresses that were gifted to us for the protection of Quetico Park,” adding the park received its special-area designation and protection in 1977.
“The lifestyle and experience travellers are seeking in this post-pandemic era speaks to many of the traditions and cultures of Indigenous peoples, and there’s something unique about that,” says Madeleine Savoie. “People are [prioritizing] work-life balance and returning to the basics, which is why tourism is so impactful right now.”
Dakota Dunes Resort, Whitecap, Sask.
Dakota Dunes Resort, managed by Atlific Hotels, is located on traditional Whitecap Dakota Territory. The 155-room resort, which opened in 2020, is a tribute in design to its Indigenous heritage and offers authentic Indigenous programming such as Bannock & Bonfire, Mini Tipi set-up lessons and the opportunity to learn and partake in Indigenous games played by Dakota people and other Indigenous groups in the area.
“Whether visitors are in public spaces or in a guestroom, they have a view of windswept sand dunes, bluffs and vegetation punctuated by the South Saskatchewan River, which are typical of the Whitecap Dakota lands. The South Saskatchewan River was traditionally a primary source of trade for the Dakota people, while the dunes provided grazing land for cattle and horses,” says general manager Vijendra Singh. “The hotel’s interior is designed with the elements of fire, water, earth and air as the underlying concepts, [while] guestrooms reflect the element of air and incorporate items reflecting the culture of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, [such as wall] coverings [symbolizing] basket weaving.”
In fact, the property recently won the Indigenous Tourism Experience Award at the 2023 Hospitality Saskatchewan Tourism Awards.
“It’s a great feeling and an honour to receive the Indigenous Tourism Experience Award,” says Singh. “It’s also encouragement for us to continue to work towards maintaining the high standards we have set for ourselves as a team. We take great pride in showcasing Indigenous culture through our hotel design, food, Indigenous activities, games and in making sure that more than 70 per cent of our work force is Indigenous.”