Urie, a member of the Métis Nation, has run Jasper Tour Company for more than a decade. Guiding visitors through his homeland along the Athabasca River is in his blood. “My ancestors used to take Europeans looking for fur. I take you looking for similar things, but this time, you take nothing but pictures and leave [the animals] to their skins.”
The types of tours offered by Urie and other Indigenous operators around Canada satisfy much of what travelers seek today: that deeper connection to place and underheard perspectives. When the travel industry talks of regenerative travel, inclusion and justice, it seems as though it is just catching up to what Indigenous tourism has long been doing. It seems a particularly cruel trick of timing that just as Indigenous tourism in Canada was poised to meet its potential, it almost collapsed.
Indigenous tourism had been the fastest-growing sector in Canadian tourism, increasing by 23.2 percent between 2014 and 2017, compared with a 14.5 percent increase in overall tourism in Canada, according to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). In 2018, ITAC and Destination Canada, the national tourism marketing organization, found that 1 in 3 international visitors were interested in Indigenous experiences. And 2019 closed with 1,900 Indigenous tourism businesses in operation, employing 40,000 people, ITAC reported, but now, only about 1,000 Indigenous tourism businesses and 15,000 employees are estimated to remain.
“Covid-19 has been pretty devastating to our industry,” says Keith Henry, ITAC’s CEO. Although the organization, which has supported Indigenous businesses since 2015, avoided the insolvency it had feared, he says it’s “still fighting to survive.”
Of the businesses that have folded or gone into “hibernation” amid the coronavirus pandemic, Henry says, “we just don’t know if they’ll be able to ever rebuild. So we’re desperately trying to keep a core group of businesses alive, and that’s what we’re doing with marketing and a number of initiatives.”
With the support of Destination Canada, ITAC has launched a new designation, “The Original Original,” to help travelers identify Indigenous tourism experiences and products in Canada. In a first for Indigenous tourism in the Americas, the mark identifies businesses that have been certified by ITAC and meet criteria that include being at least 51 percent Indigenous-owned and offering a market-ready experience.
Along with raising awareness and providing assurance that there are standards being met, Henry says, “this is a very tactical campaign: It’s driving packages and direct sales.” A dedicated website, DestinationIndigenous.ca, streamlines the booking process, allowing customers to search for experiences by location or interest, then follow through to a particular company’s website to complete a booking. Perusing the options gives a sense of the diversity of experiences on offer and may change perceptions of what an Indigenous experience looks like, whether it’s bear-watching and wine-tasting in British Columbia or dog-sledding and dining in Manitoba.
It has taken decades for Indigenous tourism in Canada to reach the point where, Henry says, “we are world leaders in the development and operation of Indigenous experiences.” Misconceptions and concerns from all sides had to be addressed, foremost by breaking down stereotypes and raising awareness of the diversity of contemporary cultures in the more than 700 First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada.
“We feel that a lot of what consumers may or may not realize that they’re looking for is really a Hollywood stereotype,” Henry says. On the other hand, among some Indigenous communities, there has been hesitation to get involved in the tourism industry. “They don’t want to have their culture exploited. A lot of our people don’t want to be Disney-fied.”
Many of the people who have embraced tourism see it as a force for good. Candace Campo is a member of the Sechelt First Nation and is the owner and operator of Talaysay Tours in Vancouver, B.C., which has restarted in-person walking tours alongside its virtual offerings.
Talaysay’s tours share “how our people relate to the land culturally and spiritually, and how we utilize the land for food, medicine and technology.” Visitors “want to get a sense of the place,” she says, “and because of Indigenous tourism, we’re able to share the long extended history of this region, past the 150 years [of Canadian Confederation], but the thousands of years of history here.”
Campo says tourism brings value to her community as a platform for promoting its stories, history and worldviews. “And I believe, in a very small, humble way, that we facilitate and create part of that dialogue for reconciliation.”
In 2008, Canada launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the federally funded, often church-run, residential schools that operated for around 120 years. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their families and communities and put into the schools, where they were forced to abandon their traditions, cultural practices and languages. The commission’s aim was partly to move Canada toward mutual respect and understanding, which seems even more urgent with the recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children near former residential schools.
In Alberta, as Urie slowly and cautiously reopens to visitors, he says he has had phone calls asking for “a reconciliation tour.” That’s not exactly how he bills what he does, “but I’ve spoken to it and people have heard me speak to it” on social media. “People are very curious right now about Indigenous ways, especially [since] the children have come back into the light from the residential schools.”
It ties into the need to properly tell history. Going back to the well-worn stories of White explorers such as Thompson, Urie says more visitors are now saying, “ ‘Okay, that’s interesting . . . but what happened before that?’ ”
In Canada and the United States, he says, “these things are beginning to be taught in schools, but there’s a great difference when you have to go and sit at a desk and are told you have to learn something, to when you go and look for it yourself.”
Campo shares a similar sentiment: “We’re more the friendly, the softer introduction to a very complex shared history.”
“You’re still coming to the mountains and calling it a holiday. I don’t want to send you home in despair,” Urie says. Correcting narratives is an integral part of the experience, but “I want to couple it with the beauty of this place and the hope for the future.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
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