Alberta First Nations hope tourism will bolster their bottom lines

The International Indigenous Tourism Conference is happening this week, bringing groups and businesses together to talk about how to prepare for business opportunities.

The International Indigenous Tourism Conference is happening this week on the Tsuut'ina Nation

Members of the Alberta Indigenous Tourism Working Group celebrate their commitment to have an association by next year. Pictured, from left to right, are: Charmaine Larsen, Sucker Creek First Nation; John Ritchie, Lac La Biche Native Friendship Centre; Dion Redgun, Siksika Nation; Hal Eagletail, Tsuut’ina Nation; Joe Urie, Jasper; Tim Patterson; Brenda Holder, Canmore. (Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada)

First Nations gathered at a conference on Tsuut'ina land are hoping Indigenous tourism will turn into a booming industry in Alberta.

The International Indigenous Tourism Conference is happening this week, bringing groups and businesses together to talk about how to prepare for opportunities. On Monday, the focus was on Alberta, with over 200 attendees at the session. 

"The challenge we've got right now in front of us is really to continue to develop businesses that really are truly market ready," said Keith Henry, the president and CEO of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada (ATAC). 

Funding for organization

Henry's organization engaged with communities across Alberta and said 98 per cent of respondents indicated they wanted an Indigenous tourism association for the province. The goal is to have it up and running in early 2018.

ATAC has promised $195,000 in support funding for the fledgling Alberta association and earlier this year, the Alberta government pledged $100,000 for the creation of an Indigenous tourist organization. 

Emcee Hal Eagletail of the Tsuut'ina Nation speaks at the 2017 International Aboriginal Tourism Conference at the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino on Tuesday. (Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada)

There are already projects in the province that are attracting visitors, including the 62,000 square foot Blackfoot Crossing Interpretive Centre on the Siksika Nation. The association says there are 86 Indigenous tourism businesses in Alberta already.

Some endeavours, however, are just getting off the ground.

Authentic experiences

John Ritchie is a project developer with the Canadian Native Friendship Centre in Lac La Biche. It just bought two new teepees to start bringing in tourists, and to offer lots of authentic add-ons.

"If you want to taste some Indigenous food, if you'd like to go out on a medicine walk, sit and have time with the elders," said Ritchie. 

He said the centre will sell crafts too, helping to offset some of their social programming costs and that it will start locally.

Within three to five years, he said the centre will be ready to welcome visitors from around the world.

With files from Dan McGarvey