Demand for Indigenous tourism outpacing availability of staff, creation of infrastructure

Deanna Lewis has worked as a B.C. tourist guide for about 20 years, but never has she seen so much interest from visitors wanting to learn about her Squamish culture. 

Lewis, who is also an elected councillor with the Squamish Nation, works as an operator for Talaysay Tours. She takes tourists on interpretive walks around areas like Alice Lake in her people's territory, teaching them about things like local history and Indigenous use of local flora.

"We're in a really good time today as Indigenous people to be proud we're here," Lewis said. "It's empowering to ourselves and to the communities that we live in."

Keith Henry, president of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, says there has been a surge in demand for Indigenous experiences across the country. 

But Henry says only 133 of Canada's 1,900 Indigenous tourism operators are "export-ready" — meaning they have the expertise, staff and infrastructure to do business on an international scale. 

"It's a really limiting factor," Henry said last week at the World Indigenous Business Forum in Vancouver, which attracted about 500 people from around the world.

Henry says Indigenous tourism in Canada has grown by $300 million from 2014 to 2017 to a total of $1.7 billion, and saw an increase of about 7,000 jobs. While tourism overall grew by 14 per cent, Indigenous tourism grew by 23 per cent. 

Tourism industry research shows that more than one in three visitors to Canada are interested in an authentic Indigenous tourism experience. 

Maryse Zeidler/CBC

'It can't be Disneyfied'

The industry's main challenge, according to Henry, is building capacity to meet demand.

That includes building better websites, training Indigenous staff and securing investment funding for infrastructure like shuttle buses and buildings. 

Not having enough Indigenous-led companies has, in some cases, led to cultural appropriation and misrepresentation when large tour operators try to meet demand without enough Indigenous contribution, Henry says. 

"These experiences need to be telling the truth about culture," he said. "It can't be contrived and it can't be Disneyfied."

Tourists can often sniff out inauthentic experiences, Henry pointed out.

Rebuilding pride

Other Indigenous tourism operators from around the world, who were also at the Vancouver conference, cited similar growth in their countries.

Lewis said one of the biggest factors limiting growth at Talaysay Tours has been finding Indigenous guides who are willing and able to share stories about their culture. 

The legacy of residential schools means previous generations have been hesitant about doing so. 

"Some people wanted to hold that knowledge," Lewis said. "It was taken from them for a very long time. So that trust wasn't there, and that pride wasn't there."

Maryse Zeidler/CBC

But younger generations are brought up differently, she said, and are encouraged to learn about their customs, history and knowledge. 

Lewis said sharing stories about her culture and the history of residential schools can be empowering and contributes to healing.

"I actually think my guests help me on my journey," she said.

'Scratching the surface'

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada supports businesses with $317,000 in annual capacity-building grants, but last year it got $1.35 million in requests from 138 organizations.   

"We're scratching the surface on the need right now," Henry said. "There's lots of community economic development work that needs to be done."

The association also works with governments and tourism associations to ensure Canada is marketed as more than "moose, beavers and RCMP," Henry said. Including Indigenous narratives in national identity has benefited countries like Australia and New Zealand. 

More investment in Indigenous tourism has been shown to pay off, Henry said. In B.C. and Ontario, provincial investments have created a growing industry that contributes to rising GDP.