After bouncing back from pandemic lows, revenues are expected to triple by 2030 if demand continues
CBC News · Posted: Jun 27, 2023 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: July 2
CBC News: On a sunny afternoon, a group of cyclists tours through Banff National Park, stopping midway to hike through the park’s Sundance Canyon. When they stop for a break, guide Heather Black leads the group through a smudge ceremony, followed by a snack of Alberta-made pemmican strips.
The trip was a trial run for a new type of tour offered through Black’s guided hiking business, Buffalo Stone Woman Iinisskimmaakii.
Demand for that side of her business is already strong — “I need another Heather” to keep up, she jokes — but after connecting with a Banff-based bike tour operator, the two joined forces to take Black’s tour out on two wheels. She says that trial run was a success.
Black, an avid hiker, was inspired to start her business after hearing from others out on the trail who were interested in learning about how Indigenous people connect to the land. She said demand is high for Indigenous tourism in the Rocky Mountains — a trend that’s also unfolding across the country.
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“I feel that I connect with many people that come on tour with us,” said Black, who is a member of the Kainai Nation, about two hours south of Calgary. “When we have that cross-cultural experience, I think, it binds us.”
Before the pandemic hit, the sector was on a steep growth trajectory, and at its peak in 2019, contributed $1.9 billion to the country’s GDP, according to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
Rebounding from pandemic lows
Like many sectors, it was hit hard by the pandemic — falling to less than $500 million in GDP at its lowest point — but has rebounded faster than expected, said Keith Henry, the organization’s president and CEO. This year it’s expected to bring in $1.5 billion, and could see revenues triple by 2030 if demand from domestic and international travellers continues to rise at the same pace, he said.
“It’s extremely sought after,” said Henry. “Certainly, I don’t think we’ve ever seen as much interest and demand for Indigenous tourism as we do today.”
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Henry credits that demand to an unprecedented interest among tourists in sustainability, Indigenous culture and history. Meanwhile, Henry said, the industry must balance the competing demands of growth and sustainability. “We want to position Canada to be a global leader in Indigenous tourism by 2030,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean we want to have sales that are through the roof and we can’t keep up … We have to be really methodical.” “It’s really about cultural sustainability, and cultural revitalization, and how do we make sure that there’s not too much pressure on the resources that we’re putting forward in these businesses,” he said.
But as the industry recovers, he said, it’s facing staffing shortages and the growing threat that extreme weather poses to outdoor recreation. For Black, that means hoping every day that smoke won’t cancel her trips. “[I’m] saying my prayers daily,” she said.
Tourists crave ‘authentic experience’
Tim Patterson, owner-operator of Zuc’min Guiding, launched his Calgary-based business right around when the pandemic hit. Still, the business survived, and he says that lately, it’s been so “flat out” that he’s “looking forward to a few days off.”
Patterson specializes in guided hikes of the Alberta and B.C. mountains, his most popular being a guided tour of the Athabasca Glacier, about an hour’s drive from Jasper National Park.
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His clients are an even split of Canadian and international visitors, some from Europe and a large contingent from the U.S. They’re typically people who are drawn to the mountains but are seeking an experience outside the usual hotspots, he said.
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“People want an authentic experience and want something a little different than what they normally get,” said Patterson, who is a member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band in B.C. Plus, he said, “Indigenous tourism is rather sexy right now.”
Many operators say Americans have become a key part of their customer base, as U.S. visitors return to Canada at a faster rate than their overseas counterparts.
Americans have also absorbed headlines from across the border about Indigenous history and Canada’s residential school system, Henry said, leading to curiosity among tourists to experience Canada in a different way. “It’s not something I think we should shy away from,” he said. “We want to help people understand the true history and story in a healthy and a good way.”
Rural access issues, staffing struggles
While U.S. and Canadian customers have helped keep the Indigenous tourism sector humming post-pandemic, the recovery hasn’t been even across the board. While businesses in major centres are doing well, those in rural and northern areas have struggled, in part because of a lack of air access.
“It’s a tale of two worlds,” said Henry.
For those lucky enough to be near a major city, staffing has been another barrier for many businesses. According to the latest figures from Tourism HR Canada, the sector’s labour force is growing but still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
For businesses like Zuc’min Guiding, whose employees have to be trained and certified, hiring takes time. “Right now I’m a bit challenged in terms of just finding enough guides to help,” said Patterson. “It’s not that there’s not Indigenous people out there to help me, it’s just building that capacity.”
Increasingly, the industry is also trying to determine how much of a threat extreme weather — wildfires in particular — will be.The summer of 2023 is already shaping up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in years, which poses a major risk to businesses as smoke blankets the country.
“When there’s smoke in the air, people don’t want to go into an area and they cancel plans,” said Henry, who noted that businesses in northern communities have been especially hard-hit. “We obviously don’t have the resources to solve all that, but it is having an impact and we’re monitoring it closely.”
Optimism high moving forward
Despite the challenges, there’s plenty of optimism about the future of Indigenous tourism in Canada.
Travel Alberta, for instance, recently gave $6 million to Indigenous Tourism Alberta to support the industry’s development. It’s believed to be the largest provincial contribution of its kind.
The crown corporation’s chief commercial officer, Jon Mamela, says interest in Indigenous tourism “has never been higher.” He hopes the funding will enable Indigenous-owned businesses to become a greater part of the province’s overall sector. “We believe it’s the smart and strategic way to move forward,” he said.
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Black has goals beyond just expanding her own business. As a guide, and in her other job as a business coach, she hopes to inspire others.
“There’s a high need for Indigenous tourism, as we’re the original storytellers of this land, and we connect to this land in a different way than many other people out there,” she said. “There needs to be many of us.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paula Duhatschek, Reporter/Editor
Paula Duhatschek is a reporter with CBC Calgary who previously worked for CBC News in Kitchener and in London, Ont. You can reach her at email@example.com.