How the Indigenous ecotourism industry is helping itself bloom

How the Indigenous ecotourism industry is helping itself bloom
Open this photo in gallery:How the Indigenous ecotourism industry is helping itself bloom

Métis-owned Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, Manitoba offers thrilling dog-sled rides and Aurora Borealis views. The long-standing business has also paved the way for newcomers in the Indigenous tourism space to thrive.Daniel Raiti/Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Every morning, Dave Daley gets up at 5 a.m. to feed his 43 Northern Husky sled dogs. They gobble down a meal of Inukshuk Professional kibble and 10 gallons of fresh-made chicken soup, before heading on a five-mile free run through the stunning boreal forest. Then, it’s time to start the day.

Daley, who is Métis, is the owner and operator of Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, Manitoba. He started the dog sledding and Aurora Borealis viewing company in 2001, after dog mushing for several years as a side job.

“I was doing Indigenous tourism before I even knew it was Indigenous tourism,” he quips.

Over the past 23 years, Daley has seen and supported the Indigenous tourism industry’s steady growth, and now sits as president of Indigenous Tourism Manitoba and on the board of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), a non-profit dedicated to aiding Indigenous tourism across the country.

Indigenous communities have long been marginalized in the tourism sector due to the lack of resources and start-up funding – a result of The Indian Act. But the success of a few long-standing Indigenous-owned tourism businesses are case studies in how they can uplift their local communities.

One such business is Spirit Bear Lodge, an ecotourism company in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest owned by the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation.

The lodge charges a conservation fee as part of its wildlife viewing tours, something general manager Roxanne Robinson says contributes a “significant amount of funding” towards Spirit Bear Lodge’s stewardship office, which conducts conservation research and language revitalization efforts in the community.

The work of businesses like Spirit Bear Lodge reinforces the way Indigenous tourism supports local ecology and conservation inherently, reflecting the deep ties between the health of the land and the strength of Indigenous communities, who have stewarded them since time immemorial. In many ways, Indigenous tourism and ecotourism are inseparable.

According to ITAC’s 2023 Action Plan, the Indigenous tourism industry contributed a peak of $2-billion to Canada’s GDP in 2019, up from $1.4-billion seven years prior. Unfortunately, the pandemic put that growth to a screeching stop, with some businesses shuttering from accrued debt.

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A guide leads guests on an excursion in the waters of the Great Bear Sea. Spirit Bear Lodge, an ecotourism company in British Columbia owned by the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation, offers wildlife and cultural excursions in and around the Great Bear Rainforest.Spirit Bear Lodge

In the last year, demand for Indigenous tourism has grown significantly. Eighty-eight per cent of Canadians are interested in participating in at least one Indigenous cultural and tourism activity, according to a 2023 ITAC survey.

Now, the industry has ambitious plans to raise its GDP contribution to $6-billion by 2030, as well as support a total of 2,700 businesses and 60,000 jobs.

But the biggest challenge for new businesses is accessing sustainable, long-term funding.

Ahous Adventures, a Tofino-based eco-cultural tour company, was opened in 2021 by the Ahousat First Nation, with the goal of fortifying the Nation’s economy.

“We’ve had dreams for a long time to stake a strong claim in the tourism sector,” says Tyson Atleo, hereditary representative of the Ahousat Nation. “A claim that sees us reach economic opportunity as well as increase our decision-making power within industry.”

“First Nations people living on reserves do not have access to the same equity or financing that non-First Nations people do,” says Atleo, explaining that those on reserves are unable to leverage property for financing.

Keith Henry, the CEO and president of ITAC, says the industry won’t be able to rely on government resources for growth. Instead, the association has developed several initiatives to promote scaling and funding for businesses.

“We are trying to attract additional investment. We know it’s going to take about $2.5-billion to do that,” Henry says. “So we have gone ahead as an industry and we’ve created a new program called the Indigenous Tourism Destination Fund [ITDF].”

The ITDF partners with Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, who both contribute 25 cents per transaction into the fund, which the ITDF then invests in three priority areas: infrastructure and destination development; sustainable workforce building; and business development and promotion.

So far, partners include Wapusk Adventures, Airbnb and Expedia, among others.

“I think it’s the most sustainable way we can build this industry in the country,” Henry says.

“Indigenous tourism is a growing entity across the country,” Daley says. “That’s a good part of reconciliation. Because it wasn’t always popular to be Indigenous.”

The industry’s rise in popularity, however, has come with some trouble – namely, impersonators. According to a 2018 Tides Canada (now MakeWay) report, non-Indigenous ecotourism businesses that advertise themselves as Indigenous are real risks for Indigenous-owned competitors.

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Visitors walk along the Wildside Trail, part of Ahousaht territory on Flores Island in British Columbia. Ahousaht First Nation opened its eco-cultural tour company in 2021 to stake its claim in the local tourism industry.Ahous Adventures

In 2022, ITAC launched the Original Original program, an accreditation process that legitimizes Indigenous-owned businesses. The accreditation signifies that a business is market ready, which boosts its ability to participate in travel trade networks and consumer markets. It’s also a way for customers to know they’re using a business that is actually Indigenous-owned.

For Henry, the Original Original creates a universal branding for Indigenous businesses across the country.

“Customers or visitors don’t know what’s authentic, what’s Indigenous-owned, what’s not. So we had to simplify the brand, if you will, of Indigenous tourism in the country,” he says.

Beyond ensuring standard business practices, the Original Original program also verifies a business is environmentally responsible, recognizing that caring for the land and water are integral to Indigenous culture.

So far, several hundred businesses have completed the accreditation, including 300 in the past year. Recently, ITAC launched a micro grant to help businesses through the application process. The grant, which provides up to $25,000, can go towards any area the business may be weaker in, such as social media or network building, so that it can become market ready.

Henry is hoping to push through another 300 businesses in 2024.

Atleo, of Ahous Adventures, knows there’s more ground to gain for an industry still finding its footing.

“To build up a legacy of marketing and brand identity takes time. We’re just at the beginning of that for Indigenous tourism across Canada.”

One in a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Indigenous Enterprises section. If you have suggestions for future stories, reach out to [email protected]