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

Loud whoops reverberated, spears waved, and deer hooves attached to ankles rattled as a dozen Tzinquaw Dancers of the Cowichan First Nation, their faces painted in fierce red stripes, hopped and swayed to the beat of drums. After the performance, visitors wandered among towering totems, watched carving demonstrations, and savoured bannock and salmon cooked over an open fire. This is the Quw’utsun Cultural Centre in Duncan on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and it is a magnet for those seeking to learn about Native culture.

In 1998, the non-profit, stakeholder-based Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (ATBC) was formed. Its goals are straightforward: to promote Native culture and help Native tourism businesses get started and then succeed.

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There are powerful reasons to take the indigenous-tourism path, as Keith Henry, a Métis and CEO of ATBC, explains.

“For many Native communities it’s the single, most-important economic opportunity because forestry has come and gone and there are difficulties with pipelines and the oil-and-gas industry,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in a recent interview. “Cultural tourism is sustainable, and it can be achieved simply by sharing the community’s story and building appropriate infrastructure. Furthermore, indigenous tourism helps preserve Native culture and identity while offering society the opportunity to learn about a history that goes back thousands of years.”

ATBC helps potential enterprises and entrepreneurs learn basics such as designing business plans and acquiring/managing finances. Once the businesses are running, the association helps them market their products by preparing brochures, advertising, attending trades shows, operating a website and raising public awareness. The aboriginal cultural tourism industry in British Columbia has made huge strides, and today there are more than 200 aboriginal tourism businesses in the province, which together contribute $561 million in value-added GDP. Growth has been strong, with an 85 percent increase since 2006. Eight major cultural centers, numerous art galleries, museums, canoe voyages, wineries, resorts and golf courses are evidence that First Nations tourism is flourishing.

At the Pacific Asia Indigenous Tourism conference recently held in Vancouver, where 130 delegates from 10 countries gathered to share knowledge, it was recognized that aboriginal tourism can contribute significantly to raising the rights, respect and standard of living for Indigenous Peoples around the globe. British Columbia First Nations, as leaders in this field, can provide considerable assistance to other groups.

The reasons for B.C.’s success are several. There was, and continues to be, strong Native leadership. Governments at both the provincial and federal level understand the importance of this market sector and support it. British Columbia, through its natural beauty, attracts many tourists and, moreover, many of those visitors have a strong interest in Native culture and history. B.C. First Nations have rich and attractive art and culture to offer, with considerable diversity: There are 198 distinct First Nations in B.C. with different customs, myths and languages. A key ingredient is the umbrella organization, ATBC.

An excellent place to experience aboriginal tourism is the mist-enshrouded isles of Haida Gwaii, off the northern coast of B.C. Visitors can tour Skedans and four other protected sites, spiritual places with a sad legacy, where fallen and leaning totem poles are the only traces of once-flourishing villages that were wiped out by settlers and disease. In contrast, the Haida Heritage Centre is a joyful place with its museum, performance hall, carving shed and restaurant. The Haida also offer fishing charters, art galleries, and wildlife viewing.

Brenda Baptiste, Osoyoos First Nation and chairperson of the ATBC, offers tips for those breaking into the tourism sector.

“You need to have a very clear vision for where you’re heading,” she said. “Then you need to stay true to your vision, because it will take a lot of work.”

Research is key as well, she added.

“A vital step is to conduct research into the potential market,” Baptiste said. “Without baseline data, how can you proceed? How would you get financial support? This can be a difficult for people with an oral tradition.”

Baptiste also feels that an organization like ATBC, which is arms-length from government, is needed to represent and coordinate all levels of market development. Building strong partnerships with governments is also essential. With those ingredients, the experts said, indigenous tourism has a very bright future.

“The market is not even close to being saturated,” stated Henry emphatically, “Our research shows that last year four million visitors to B.C. wanted an aboriginal experience, but we could only satisfy about 15 percent of that demand, which is growing. Our big challenge is to harness enough Native experiences and get them market ready.”

Such tourism provides jobs as well as meaningful interaction.

“Aboriginal tourism,” said Henry, “helps create sustainable and meaningful employment for Native communities, and provides the impetus for elders to pass down culture, history and tradition to youth.”