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Natives play big role at International Ecotourism Conference

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – First Nations and its culture played a prominent role in the Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference, which was held for the first time in Canada in the west coast city of Vancouver in October. The event was organized by the International Ecotourism Society based in Washington D.C., and attracted more than 400 delegates, some from as far away as Japan, Germany, Africa and Australia.

The Spakwus Slolem (Eagle Song) dancers of the Squamish Nation, British Columbia, which includes the area north of Vancouver, opened the conference. Bob Baker, their spokesperson and an elder, welcomed conference attendees and introduced the dance by telling how the Squamish territory is blessed with eagles.

In the opening plenary session, Kelly Bricker, executive director of the International Ecotourism Society said many people don’t realize the size and importance of the tourism industry. “It is the largest business sector in the world economy and is responsible for 230 million jobs.”


The N’Kmip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos, British Columbia is one of the First Nations centers that look to ecotourism to increase awareness and knowledge of the aboriginal communities.

If tourism were a country it would have the second largest economy in the globe, second only to the United States. But tourism has a large environmental impact, especially from the transportation needed to get to and from destinations. The niche area of ecotourism, which strives to minimize this impact, has been growing three times faster than regular tourism.

Clearly, conferences dedicated to promoting ecotourism are important. It is also becoming recognized that Native people, with value systems rooted in the environment, have much to contribute. For this reason, one of the four main themes of the conference was devoted to Indigenous People and Local Communities; the other themes were Tourism and Climate Change, Parks and Protected Areas and Greening Operations and Technologies.

Much discussion at the sessions was aimed at defining exactly what ecotourism, sustainable tourism, nature tourism and similar terms mean, and developing formal guidelines to implement them. A keynote luncheon speaker, Anna Pollock, reprimanded the audience, saying that this is wasting time. Instead she said we should recognize that ecotourism is all about caring. She urged everyone to spend less time on definitions, and get down to making things happen.

The crucial importance of caring for the environment was best stated by Chief Bill Cranmer of the Namgis Nation from Alert Bay near northeastern Vancouver Island. He was part of the internationally renowned Gwa’wina Dancers who drummed, danced and performed the songs of all the birds that fly in the sky and all the creatures that swim in the sea. Sometimes the dancers wore large cedar masks; one depicted the supernatural thunderbird and another was a sleek killer whale.

When the dancing ended, Cranmer delivered an impromptu and emotional speech. “The salmon are disappearing, and without the salmon the grizzlies and eagles won’t survive.” He described how overfishing, destruction of spawning rivers by logging and sea lice from farmed fish are killing wild salmon. “Everything is connected, so our people won’t survive. None of us will survive. We must protect the environment before it’s too late.”

Although Canadian First Nations and their issues were represented at the conference, none of the sessions included presentations by American Indians. Several attendees mentioned that a North American conference dedicated solely to Native ecotourism would be useful.

The importance of Native peoples’ culture was addressed by keynote speaker Dr. Wade Davis, an anthropologist and explorer in residence at National Geographic magazine who has studied cultures of indigenous people around the globe. He eloquently explained how cultures and languages are treasure houses of knowledge and that they must be protected.

In Canada, few have done more to restore Native culture than William Wasden Jr., the leader and founder of the Gwa’wina Dancers. Not only do their performances bring tourists to Alert Bay, but it encourages Native youth to learn their culture and language and to stay at home. Elder Wasden believes, “This is where the real reward lies. It cannot be measured in dollars. But young people becoming proud of their heritage and helping to preserve it brings great wealth to our people.”

But Native ecotourism still faces challenges. Daniel-Paul Bork, a Mohawk Native from Oka Quebec and the CEO of Aboriginal Tourism Canada, explained that, to date, most Native tourism developments in central and eastern Canada have involved casinos, resorts and golf courses.

“These facilities provide income and jobs, but they do nothing for our culture or for the environment.” Over the past few years Aboriginal Tourism Canada has begun to pursue ecotourism. “This is important, our traditional teaching, values and philosophy all are based on living in harmony with nature. Ecotourism is a natural for us.”

British Columbia First Nations are leading the way in Canada. Brenda Ireland, Neenokasi, or Hummingbird, of the Ojibway Nation, described the work of Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia. Their programs include newsletters, training programs, assistance with starting ecotourism projects such as tours, marketing help, the preparation of an aboriginal tourism destination map and a Web site.

Ireland described how, in the past few years, seven cultural centers have opened in British Columbia that are like museums showcasing Native history and culture, including performance halls with dancing and plays and carving sheds for making masks, totems and canoes. These centers not only attract tourists, but have also become cultural focal points for the Native communities and serve as places for teaching.

 Native cultural centers in British Columbia include:Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, Whistler.

Haida Heritage Centre, Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands.

Quw’utsun Cultural and Conference Centre, Duncan.

Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, Osoyoos.

Xa:ytem Longhouse Interpretive Centre, Mission.

U’mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay.

The U’Mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay, for example, is an attractive building located next to an abandoned residential school. The main display preserves the treasures including masks, coppers and jewellery seized by the federal government in 1921 at an “illegal” potlatch; these artifacts were returned in recent years. Traditional dances are held at the nearby Big House.

The conference sessions noted that Native people still face many difficulties in implementing ecotourism – marketing is difficult, not enough visitors are coming to the cultural centers, it is difficult to get training, it is difficult to instil an entrepreneurial spirit in young people and there is still too much red tape and bureaucracy.