Struggling Indigenous tourism businesses wishing for open U.S. border

·3 min read

Battle River Outfitters operator Rick Albert is in a bind.

For the second straight summer, he's had to postpone the hunting trips of 25 Americans who are all anxious to stalk deer and elk near his home on the Sweetgrass First Nation.

Clamped shut borders have instead forced Albert to find business among Canadians, who are comparatively less willing to spend large sums of money on local hotels and restaurants.

"It's just not the same as when I have the Americans come up here," he said. "They mean business when they come up here to hunt."

He's one of roughly 90 Indigenous tourism operators in Saskatchewan wishing for open borders. That hope comes as mutual travel restrictions between Canada and the U.S. — which prohibit all discretionary travel between the two countries — are due to expire July 21.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said he understands how eager people are to see the border reopen, but noted that the pandemic is still ongoing and “things aren’t normal yet.”

“Nobody wants us to move too fast and have to reimpose restrictions as case numbers rise like we’re seeing elsewhere in the world,” he said. “We need to do this right."

Waiting for the return of travel has many Indigenous-run tourism businesses "hibernating," says Keith Henry, who is president of Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

In 2019, Indigenous tourism employed 3,600 people in Saskatchewan, but that plunged to 626 with the onset of the pandemic, Henry said. Those businesses have since recovered some lost ground, now employing roughly 1,200 workers, he said.

With domestic tourism failing to fully fill the gap normally filled by American visitors, Henry's open to any solution that opens the border. The lack of a clear plan worries him.

"We're hoping (an open border) will drive traffic," Henry said. "We're really hoping Canada reopens the U.S. border as soon as possible."

That could make the difference for about 10 people that Barry Carriere, an outfitter based out of Cumberland House, hires each summer. Like Albert in Sweetgrass First Nation, he also has group of U.S. customers waiting to travel. He thinks they should be able to do so if they're vaccinated and taking the proper precautions.

"I'd like to see them really open up borders for them, because everybody's struggling," he said.

Michela Carriere, who has no relation to Barry, runs Aski Holistic Adventures near Cumberland House. She's managed the past year by working with domestic visitors, contract work and the support of Tourism Saskatchewan and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

But those relief programs are slowing and she's spending more time online trying to convince guests — who are wary of complex international travel — that it's safe to visit.

"I definitely will say that there's interest out there, but it's almost too soon for that big boom yet," she said.

"I don't know what the future holds."

— With Canadian Press Files

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting