Indigenous tourism: the next big thing for the north?

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

The thing about Indigenous-themed tourism in Alberta is that it is a lot of mostly-untapped potential. We’ve been hearing that for the past 30 years. At least.

Big opportunities. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to develop the product. Finding a niche. Rounding up financing, etc. etc.

It’s not as if nothing is happening. But in the northern part of Alberta it’s still more potential than actual.

“In the development stages,” is how Indigenous Tourism Alberta Executive Director Shae Bird puts it.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that the demand for ‘authentic experiences’ is big, and it doesn’t look as if that will change. Bird says one out of every three international visitors to Canada is looking for something in the Indigenous line. An obvious example would be camping in a teepee village, but there are many other possibilities.

“It could be a hotel or a restaurant,” Bird says. Or a campground, or fishing tours, or a gift shop or an art gallery. It could be Indigenous art on the walls of a hotel lobby that otherwise is a lot like most other hotels.

Add to that one-in-three foreign visitors the 25 per cent of domestic travelers who also want to see or experience things with Indigenous themes, and you’ve got a bullish market. Bird returns to that fact over and over again in the interview.

“It has been identified as a key piece in economic diversification and recovery,” he says. “It has a compound effect.”

The organization Bird works for – like Indigenous tourism product itself in Alberta – is just getting its legs under it. The ITA is a couple of years old, Bird says. It’s connected to a national organization that is attempting to move things along on a number of fronts – awareness, support for tourism operators, making connections and responding to requests from individual travelers and package tour operators whose customers want this sort of stuff.

If you build it, in other words, they will come.

All these plans, forecasts and ambitions Bird cautions “are pre-COVID.” But he sees the future as bright.

In fact the reason the ITA got in touch with news outlets last week was to announce $200,000 in ‘stimulus relief’ to Indigenous tourism businesses. This is to help them keep their heads above water in the COVID-induced downturn. He says the fund was “way over-subscribed,” with over 50 applications. They pared it down to “about 37,” one of which was a fishing tour outfit in Slave Lake.

Bird says Indigenous tourism is worth an estimated $166 million, with “a tremendous upside potential.”

How high could it go? Anybody’s guess, but if the province is to reach its goal of more than doubling tourism revenue (to $20 billion) by 2030, Indigenous tourism could have a lot to do with it.

Winter fun at Metis Crossing, located on the North Saskatchewan River near Smoky Lake.
The sky is apparently the limit when it comes to Indigenous-themed tourism. If you provide it – they will come, is what Indigenous Tourism Alberta says. This scene is from Painted Warriors, near Sundre.
Photos courtesy Roam Creative.

Share this post

Post Comment