By Sam Laskaris, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com
Building Back Better.
That was not only the name and prevalent theme at the three-day National Indigenous Tourism Conference, which wrapped up March 10 in Calgary, it was also the name of the opening keynote address delivered by senior management members of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
It’s been no secret the Indigenous tourism industry across the country has taken a significant beating the past couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous businesses have suffered greater than some others in the tourism sector in part because many Indigenous communities across Canada had their own lockdowns and restrictions, prohibiting visitors.
“We want to make sure we can rebuild because we are resilient,” said Sebastien Desnoyers-Picard, ITAC’s chief marketing officer, during the keynote. “Our communities are strong. Our people are even stronger. And I want to make sure that we highlight that and we continue in that same sense and the same spirit of showcasing, highlighting and sharing our culture to the world.”
Desnoyers-Picard and his ITAC colleagues are keen to play a significant role in the bounce back.
“As soon as international travel restrictions are lifted, ITAC will continue to lead Indigenous tourism industry into the resiliency phase,” he said. “Our objective really is to hit and bring back all the 2019 numbers and rebuild the industry by 2025 or 2026.”
In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic started having major impacts in Canada, about 39,000 people were employed in Indigenous tourism jobs across the country.
Today, just over half of those jobs are around.
As part of their three-year strategic plan, from 2022 through to 2025, ITAC officials are asking the federal government for a $65 million investment over those years.
“We want to bring back roughly 21,000 jobs,” said ITAC’s CEO and president Keith Henry. “That’s what it’s going to take get us back to the 39,000 or so level of jobs, full- and part-time.”
Henry said ITAC officials are hoping about 4,200 jobs are regained in 2022. And then 8,400 more are gained in each of the following two years.
Henry and ITAC officials are waiting to see how much funding they will receive when the 2022 federal budget is unveiled next month.
“The truth is if we don’t see those kinds of strategic investments, we don’t know how the industry will grow fast enough,” he said. “There’s not enough marketing in our opinion, enough drive, enough tools in the toolkit to actually drive more customers, whether it’s Canadians domestically or as we re-enter international markets.”
Henry said plenty of consumer research has been done in the past 24 months.
“There’s a change in the way people look at this planet,” he said. “And the truth is more than ever they want to understand Indigenous culture and values because people fundamentally believe this planet is not savable unless we do. That’s an advantage for this industry.”
Henry had previously predicted it could take until 2028 or possibly even 2030 for the Indigenous tourism industry to fully recover without proper federal investments. That would be several years longer than the anticipated tourism recovery across Canada.
“The truth is Indigenous tourism is going to take much longer to recover,” he said. “And we’ve been saying it will be 8 to 10 years without a significant about face and tools to continue to stabilize.”
Brady Smith, ITAC’s chief strategy officer, said there are three priorities his association is eager to emphasize in its latest strategic plan. They are inspiring, leveraging and strengthening.
“We want to inspire our businesses across the country,” Smith said. “We know the past two years has been really, really difficult and in many cases, people have said to us through emails and phone calls, by the hundreds over the past several years, why are we in tourism?”
Smith said ITAC provides guidelines for those business operators on the importance of continuing on in tourism.
“We need to leverage,” Smith added. “We’re going to be leveraging our partnerships.”
Another focus will be on strengthening ITAC as an industry leader.
“We really need to strengthen the ITAC leadership across the country and globally,” he said.
Teresa Ryder, ITAC’s director of business development, said representatives from the national association are currently doing plenty of work alongside other tourism organizations across Canada.
“We’re working with our provinces and territories to build toolkits to reopen,” she said. “Some of these are specialized, some of these are national but making sure that when doors open, export ready businesses are supported through their provinces and territories.”
Plan your adventures throughout the West Coast at westcoasttraveller.com and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @thewestcoasttraveller. And for the top West Coast Travel stories of the week delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Armchair Traveller newsletter!