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Global Gathering Highlights Indigenous Tourism’s Enormous Promise

A fierce Maori man, his body a tangle of tattoos and clad only in a loincloth, stood in front of a Squamish First Nation chief wearing a feather headdress. The two men stepped forward and pressed their noses together.

This moving, traditional Maori greeting, which shares the gift of breath, the very mainstay of life, was part of the second annual Pacific Asia Indigenous Tourism (PAIT) conference held earlier this fall in Vancouver. The conference is a sign that for Native peoples around the globe tourism is a promising way forward.

The extraordinary beauty and importance of Native peoples’ culture was addressed by keynote speaker Wade Davis, an anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at National Geographic. He eloquently explained how cultures and languages are treasure houses of knowledge that are under threat, but must be preserved and valued.

Tourism is a powerful way for indigenous peoples to do just that. They can protect their culture, language and identity, and gain the extra bonus of establishing a sustainable economy, which will help them escape the trap of poverty. Tourism can also educate the public about Native ways, which in turn can help Indigenous Peoples regain the rights they have lost.

“First Nations have long been invisible in their own country,” said Hereditary Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation. “Indigenous tourism offers a mechanism to right that.”

Some went even further.

“The indigenous world view can save the planet,” said Ben Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Tribe in South Dakota, president of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance.

Indigenous tourism, however, is relatively young, and many of the 370 million Native peoples in 70 nations have a long way to go to realize its potential. Despite gains, they still must deal with mistreatment and discrimination, as was evidenced in the presentation of one aboriginal man from northwest Australia. In the middle of describing the Fitzroy Crossing Resort, a successful indigenous business, he broke down with emotion, cast his notes aside and spoke from the heart.

“We continue to suffer prejudice,” he said. “But we’ve created a base for the next generation.”

As recently as 1951, Australia had a bounty for shooting aboriginals, Davis noted. In 1961, there were still school textbooks that listed aboriginals as wild animals.

A representative from Chile described the difficulties in his country, themes that echoed throughout the conference.

“The government does not recognize or support indigenous communities, but in one community we took a decision to survive,” said Juan Ignacio Marambio of Travelution.org, an international tourism network that emphasizes cross-cultural experiences in travel. “We decided to do that through tourism.”

The subject of indigenous rights also permeated the conference.

“Empowerment is the absolute key to successful indigenous tourism,” said John King, an organizer of the first PAIT conference in 2012. The conference organizers support the 2012 Larrakia Declaration, which asserts that the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides the foundation for advancement of indigenous tourism.

Chris Bottrell, a professor at the Capilano University School of Tourism in Vancouver, studied Native groups around the Pacific. He found that aboriginal groups were respected by non-aboriginals where treaties have been formed, mutually beneficial business partnerships created, and where there is leadership with integrity. Disrespect arises where there is a lack of territorial identity and communities are displaced.

Ben Sherman held up the British Columbia First Nations as a tourism success story. Several speakers described the more than 200 Aboriginal tourism businesses in the province, including eight major cultural centres, art galleries, museums, canoe voyages, wineries, resorts and golf courses. A vital key is the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, which offers help ranging from practical business guidance to lobbying and forming partnerships. One speaker described the burgeoning international market and offered the goal that all future Canadian tourism experiences would include at least one First Nation’s component.

RELATED: Linking Cultures, Creating Jobs: British Columbia First Nations Are Leaders in Indigenous Tourism

The Maoris of New Zealand have also developed a strong indigenous tourism sector. There are more than 200 Maori businesses including museums, tours and experiences such as fishing, thermal springs, and horse riding. Growth has been strong, with a 24 percent increase in visitors since 2014. The New Zealand Maori Tourism organization provides coordination.

In 1996 in Namibia, the government gave control of land conservancies to local communities, which then opened lodges and developed tours. Because locals depend on lions, rhinos, elephants and cheetahs, they protect them, and the numbers of all these animals have increased. According to the speaker, Namibia is the “greatest wildlife recovery story in the world.”