Northern Alberta wellness camp shows potential of Indigenous tourism
On the shores of a northern Alberta lake, a wellness camp that draws on Indigenous traditions is among the new trailblazers of tourism in the province.
"It's a lot of work, you know, but it's work that I love," said April Isadore, who started the Kokum's Outreach alcohol- and drug-free wellness camp in 2019.
Isadore's camp is among a surge of new Indigenous-led tourism ventures — including art galleries, casinos, restaurants and hotels — that have joined Indigenous Tourism Alberta.
Agency CEO Shae Bird said membership has grown from 138 in 2021 to 230 in 2022. In a bid to support continued growth, Travel Alberta is investing $1.3 million into Indigenous Tourism Alberta in 2023.
"What that tells us is that there's been a significant growth in interest for Indigenous tourism development from entrepreneurs and communities across the province," said Bird.
And that fits right into a provincial strategy to grow tourism outside of major cities and national parks, the key topic of the Growing the North conference held Feb. 23 in Grande Prairie.
Doubling Alberta's tourism industry
In 2019, tourism was a $10-billion industry in Alberta, according to the provincial government.
Boosting that to $20 billion per year by 2035 is an achievable goal but only if between $6 and $8 billion is generated outside of legacy destinations like Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, said Jon Mamela, a senior vice-president of Travel Alberta.
He said northwestern Alberta holds a lot of potential as an emerging tourism destination in Alberta.
"This has to be very community-driven," Mamela said. "It's not just us coming in as Travel Alberta to say this is how it's going to get done."
Kokum's Outreach, located near Joussard, Alta., on the southwest shore of Lesser Slave Lake, started with one canvas teepee and now it has nine, Isadore told CBC News.
Along with accommodations and catered meals, the camp offers various programming opportunities, created around supporting a person's mental and spiritual health.
"There's people that want to learn more about Indigenous culture and language. So I bring in elders that have that knowledge base and experience to teach people who want to learn," Isadore said.
'Stories to share'
Bird said fostering a variety of Indigenous tourism opportunities across Alberta can showcase the diversity of culture.
"There's so many nations outside these major urban hubs that have their stories to share," Bird said.
Isadore said it was a dream come true to create the camp at the Lesser Slave Lake, about 300 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, but she wants it to become more than just a place to sleep in a teepee, construct a drum, smoke fish or dry meat.
"We don't only have to sustain our Indigenous culture ... but we also have to sustain that kindness to each other and learn from each other," she said.
Isadore said that's why she wants to expand Kokum's Outreach to include more programming outside of the summer months.
"I never planned to make a million dollars," she said.
"But I want to reach at least a million people."