Indigenous Tourism Industry Gets Creative in Rebounding from Pandemic

Vancouver Island’s Indigenous tourism industry encourages BC visitors to experience authentic First Nations culture this summer

Indigenous carving in progress
Indigenous carving in progress, courtesy of Cedar House Gallery, Ucluelet

Until March this year, Indigenous tourism across Canada was outpacing all other tourism sectors for growth, was one of the largest single employers and economic drivers for Indigenous communities and contributed well over a billion dollars a year to Canada’s GDP*.

Then COVID-19 hit and the industry ground to a halt while communities went into lock down. Now, as economic activity resumes and Canadians become increasingly interested in exploring their own regions, the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) is partnering with Destination Canada to promote and support a re-invigoration of Indigenous tourism, with Destination Canada providing almost two million dollars in funding.

As a result, ITAC has launched a new Destination Indigenous marketing campaign to encourage, highlight and educate travelers about the many Indigenous experiences Canadians can enjoy.

Zoom backgrounds, online booking platform, videos all part of Indigenous marketing campaign

The national Destination Indigenous marketing campaign launched June 21 and includes an experience booking platform that will link travelers with Indigenous tourism businesses accepting visitors this summer, as well as a series of Zoom backgrounds showcasing Indigenous-experience imagery from each province and territory, and a video campaign called Virtually Yours to entice tourists.

“Now more than ever, in light of the drastic effects that COVID-19 has had on the Indigenous tourism sector, it is important to promote and support the Indigenous tour, activity and experience operators that have welcomed visitors from around the world into their communities,” says Keith Henry, President and CEO of ITAC. “With over 40,000 people employed by this industry, we have turned our efforts to advocacy — requesting much-needed federal financial relief for businesses — and now, towards the promotion of domestic tourism through the Destination Indigenous campaign.”

Explore Songhees
Photo courtesy Explore Songhees and the Songhees Nation
Vancouver Island’s Indigenous tour operators offer new experiences, adapt to online opportunities

On Vancouver Island, Christina Clarke, CEO of the Songhees Development Corporation, says their new tourism initiative Explore Songhees was preparing to launch cultural canoe tours in Victoria’s inner harbour this summer.

“We planned to hire 17 people for ticket sales, canoe paddling and guiding,” she told Douglas. “It is disappointing to have everything come to a sudden halt with COVID-19 and to see the tourism industry reeling around us. We have so many supporters and partners in the harbour, and they are all suffering too. We feel Indigenous tourism is still a bright spot. If we are limited to staycations, how wonderful to spend the time learning about the First Nations in your hometown.”

Clarke says Explore Songhees is pivoting to an online concept, saying, “Though we can’t paddle in a canoe together, we can walk with you virtually. We are working on a Seven Signs of Lekwungen tour with a virtual guide. Based on the Spindle Whorls designed by master carver and Songhees Elder Butch Dick, visitors are invited to tour the Whirls with a digital map and videos at each stop where our members will share their history and culture.”

Kwalilas Hotel Port Hardy
Kwa’lilas Hotel, Port Hardy (courtesy of Kwa’lilas Hotel)

In Port Hardy, Paul Cox, General Manager of Kwa’lilas Hotel says initiatives that focus on Indigenous tourism are critical to the recovery of the sector. “We need visibility to bring awareness to the unique stories and culture of each nation.” The hotel is owned and operated by the Gwa’sala Nakwaxda’wx people, and features authentic local Indigenous art and also offers eco-adventure tours and cultural experiences.

Cox notes that while they’ve benefited from provincial and federal funding, it’s the support of Island and B.C. residents that will matter the most this summer. “This is going to be a challenging year for all tourism operators, especially those that are dependent on international tourism, which makes up the bulk of our market. We are open and hopeful that Vancouver Islanders will not only visit but explore [our region]; from taking tours to the homelands of the Gwa’sala Nakwaxda’wx people to see the Nakwakto Rapids, which have the fastest tidal surge in the world, to bear viewing tours, the North Island is one of the rare wild places left on the coast. For nature lovers, there are numerous hikes, camping sites, and other adventures.”

Cedar House Gallery
Cedar House Gallery (courtesy of Cedar House Gallery)

In Ucluelet, the Cedar House Gallery is also open for business. Owned by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Hjalmer Wenstob and his family, it showcases local First Nations art, with a special focus on Nuu-chah-nulth art. The gallery usually has an active studio and carving space, which has been closed but will now open by appointment until it is safe to resume normal hours (book online). Wenstob says they’ve also adapted by creating an online art gallery on their website as well as promoting art and artists through their social media channels on Facebook and Instagram (@cedarhousegallery). “We are working hard to adhere to provincial health guidelines, while also creating a space that is not only safe, but an enjoyable gallery experience.”

Indigenous Tourism BC supports members through funding and marketing, including new mobile app

Paula Amos, Chief Marketing and Development Officer for Indigenous Tourism BC says although COVID-19 has drastically altered the travel landscape, they’re grateful to their partners for stepping up, citing the Province of BC, Destination BC, Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Indigenous Services Canada and Western Economic Diversification for their ongoing investment in Indigenous tourism during the pandemic. “With their support,” she says, “we were able to create the Emergency Relief Fund, supporting over 70 Indigenous businesses to better weather the recent storm and prepare for opening this summer.”

Indigenous Tourism BC launched a mobile trip-planning app on July 2, describing it as a useful tool in accessing up-to-date information about Indigenous accommodations, attractions and cultural experiences that are open and operating in 2020. It also includes free access to an evolving library of traditional songs, legends and languages to enhance travel experiences, suggested itineraries and an interactive map.

“With a post-pandemic business recovery plan in place,” says Amos, “we are optimistic for a safe and successful summer tourism season and continued growth in a sustainable, authentic and culturally-rich Indigenous tourism industry here in BC and across Canada. We are pleased to inspire and welcome locals to Explore BC Local and support our province’s diverse offering of Indigenous experiences.”

*Source: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Trip planning resources, courtesy of Indigenous Tourism BC:

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