Edmonton

'Bitumen bubble' ? How about an Alberta bitumen spa resort?

An Edmonton entrepreneur is behind a first-of-its-kind idea for Canada to develop a bitumen spa resort.

A resort where people could take a warm oil bath could attract big tourism dollars, says backer

Buff Parry explains indigenous people have known about the medicinal benefits of bitumen for thousands of years. (CBC)

An Edmonton entrepreneur is behind a first-of-its-kind proposal for Canada — a bitumen spa resort.

Buff Parry, whose company The Salai Project Inc. is leading the project proposal, admits it sounds a bit "foreign" at first blush.

But he is convinced the idea has potential to bring in big tourism dollars for Alberta.

"I think we have to get past the notion it's too exotic for anything we're used to," said Parry.

Parry explained indigenous people have known about the medicinal benefits of bitumen for thousands of years.

"It has a healing curative aspect to it for surface wounds, or for something like psoriasis or acne or ailments of the skin," he said.

A client soaks in a bath of naftalan oil at a health centre in Azerbaijan. (YouTube)

He noted indigenous people along the Athabasca River would use bitumen to repair leaks to canoes.

Parry learned about modern day bitumen spas elsewhere in the world while doing a study about bitumen with the Indigenous Media Institute.

He said a number of treatments are available internationally, from full bitumen baths at a spa in Azerbaijan, to less refined bitumen mud rubs in Israel and Jordan around the Dead Sea.

Parry is hoping for investment and possible partnership from Azerbaijan.

While he is excited about the healing benefits, others go for bitumen treatments simply because it feels good, Parry said.

"Some people do it just for the pleasure of doing it, not for healing, but because it is relaxing and it helps for tightened muscles and cramps and things like that," he said.

Bitumen mud baths are also used in the Dead Sea area. (YouTube)

Parry said he believes the ideal location for this kind of resort in Alberta is in the Fort McMurray area, where he's also keen to partner with First Nations.

And with the oil industry going through tough times, Parry sees the proposal as one that could pump a little money into tourism coffers. 

Parry's research assistant Rodney McLeod, from Frog Lake First Nation, said he's already had positive feedback about the idea from indigenous people he's talked to about the idea.

"We can have a more traditional and holistic relationship with it," said McLeod, referring to oil. 

Parry admits it's still a "young idea" but already has support from some investors and a hotel chain interested in the development.
Frog Lake First Nation member Rodney McLeod, Parry's research assistant, said he's gotten positive response from indigenous people over the idea. (CBC)

He stressed the resort would offer a lot more than simply a bitumen spa.

He wants it to have a fine arts centre displaying paintings where bitumen is used as the pigment. A  technique famously used by Leonardo Da Vinci and more recently by Fort McMurray artist Lucas Seaward.

In addition there are also plans for a pharma research centre which would study bitumen and health.

Parry's hoping indigenous medicine experts will play a key role in that,  and wants to partner with First Nations on the whole project.

Crystal Bull, from Goodfish Lake First Nation, has agreed to be an indigenous liaison making connections with First Nations leaders in the area.

"I want to work with chief and council to get them on board," said Bull. "If they were to start the resort, we would want to hire locals, also for them to be involved in tours of the area, possibly dog sled rides."

Crystal Bull, from Goodfish Lake First Nation, is working as liaison to help make connections with First Nations leaders in the area. (CBC)

Parry said he'd like to see river boat trip rides in the summer as another attraction.

He admits the bitumen treatments probably won't be cheap. They could range in price from the less expensive, unrefined bitumen mud applications to the more expensive full bitumen oil baths, which could cost up to $250.

"It's worked in Jordan, Israel, Azerbaijan and why wouldn't it work here?" Parry asked.

The working title for the spa is "The Land of Nitukki". In Cree that means "I am Eternal."

But Parry said he likes the fact that in ancient Mesopotamian languages the phrase translates to "Sacred Land of Burning Bitumen."

The next step is a feasibility study. If that gets the thumbs up, Parry's hoping his dream will come to life within the next three years.

gareth.hampshire@cbc.ca

@cbcgareth

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