Indigenous tourism comes of age
by Julie Baxter | 12 June 2019
Five years ago at Canada’s annual travel trade event Rendez-Vous Canada (RVC) I met Keith Henry - a man on a mission - pressing for publicity and recognition for Canada’s indigenous tourism operators.
With him were a handful of those indigenous operators making their debut on the trade stage and taking baby steps towards the international market. They were trying to navigate the demands of wholesalers and understand the expectations of overseas visitors. They knew they had a lot to learn.
Last month I met Keith again, in London as President and CEO of ITAC - Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada - and now leading the first indigenous tourism mission to the UK. The mission was held at Canada House and backed by Destination Canada and WestJet – the latter supporting the delegation with seats on its inaugural Dreamliner service from Calgary to Gatwick.
Keith reminded me of our first meeting and beamed as he said: “How things have moved on. ITAC is now working with 1800 indigenous businesses in Canada, almost 140 are export ready and this year at RVC we had 60 plus actively pushing for brochure exposure. We now have wholesaler rates in place and flexible ways for operators to pick them up. A lot of the ground work has now been done and we have around 30 packages ready to go.”
The fact that things are now beginning to move for indigenous tourism operators is testament not only to Keith and his determination to present the professional, business-focused face of indigenous tourism, but also of David Goldstein, shortly to stand down after nearly five years as President and CEO for Destination Canada.
David had given good, positive responses to press and trade questions about inclusion and indigenous tourism development at that indigenous trade debut five years ago but skeptics in the crowd questioned whether this was true engagement or just lip-service, as so often seen in tourism worldwide.
But it seems David and his team really did recognise the importance of bringing First Nation people and businesses into the tourism fold, and helped secure government commitment and funding and the platforms to bring them centre stage. He spent time with elders, sought their input, understanding and direction and tried to assure them they could become equal partners with already established Canadian travel businesses on the international market.
Leading the London mission with Keith he explained: “I have a passion for telling Canada’s story and it is clear to me that story is not complete without the stories of our indigenous people. Telling it is vital, as we reconcile and acknowledge difficult parts of our history. These stories also help differentiate us from our competitors and add to the reasons people should visit.”
Indigenous tours should clearly be moving up the UK trade’s agenda. Sales are up 23% and out-pace tourism sales more generally, and yet out of all sales made in the UK, less than one percent includes an indigenous tourism experience.
There is huge room for growth and perhaps the WestJet story helps show how this is a product whose time has come. For the launch of its new cabins and Dreamliner services – transforming it from a LCC to a full service carrier - the company had one clear goal: to make its service reflect the very essence of Canada and showcase the destination and the communities it serves.
It aims to be typically Canadian, an airline with personality, with a fun approach but also caring for the community it comes from and its home environment. As in First Nation culture, it has taken inspiration for its cabin design and features from the Canadian landscape and worked to include Treaty 7 elders in its development.
Arved von zur Muehlen, Chief Commercial Officer, says: “Supporting the mission and working with the Treaty 7 elders has been so important. They blessed the 787 with a very touching ceremony in the hangar, and we have had a leadership summit with them to help enrich the team and ensure we could incorporate their thinking in our own culture, to make it modern but with meaning, and inspired by our home environment.”
The new WestJet services into Calgary are seen as a key gateway to indigenous tourism opportunities across Alberta, and beyond.
Keith adds: “We have once in a lifetime opportunities for people within indigenous tourism from high-end product to remote cultural centres and rural activities. We have product and experiences for every type of traveller, our challenge now is to connect that product more fully with the market.”
And that means connecting with travel agents and tour operators like you! There’s plenty to engage with, so if you haven’t already check it out here: indigenoustourism.ca or download this guide to Canada’s indigenous experiences.
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