Province helps Indigenous tourism lift off in Alberta

The Alberta government is trying to give Indigenous tourism businesses a lift by providing a grant for a new organization that will market companies abroad.

Entrepreneurs encouraged to offer cultural experiences, traditional learning

Brenda Holder demonstrating scraping a deer hide as part of her business Mahikan Trails near Canmore. (Supplied)

Brenda Holder never realized her traditional Métis skills and knowledge would come in handy in the business world until the time she showed British soldiers some bear tracks.

"They were fascinated," she said in an interview Thursday.

That was the moment Holder decided to ditch the depressing job she was enduring and set up her own adventure company, Mahikan Trails, in 2000.

"I started to realize I had some very special skills," she recalled.

Holder spoke at a conference Thursday at the Enoch First Nation, west of Edmonton. In her speech she encouraged others to follow their dreams.

That's where the Alberta government announced it is investing $100,000 to set up a provincial Indigenous tourist organization that will help market companies to the big tour operators in Europe and Asia.

"Certainly there is a huge visitor economy that we're not selling to," said Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada, which will establish the provincial Indigenous tourism body.

"They don't know of our experiences, those being the large tour operators."

Henry noted that with 140 Indigenous tourism businesses in Alberta, a lot of groundwork has already been done and the challenge now is in getting the message out.

'We haven't tapped into the tourism'

The idea of a provincial association to help market Indigenous tourism companies in Alberta is being welcomed by the Grand Chief for Treaty 6.

"It's a big opportunity for sure. We haven't tapped into the tourism as an enterprise as much as we should or could," said Willie Littlechild.

Holder said while it's scary setting up any business at first, she's confident any company offering cultural experiences and education is a growth area people are prepared to pay for, if it's done right.

They didn't want to just go for a hike, they wanted to be a part of you, of your community.- Brenda Holder

"I feel that Indigenous tourism is an area of increasing in interest," she said.

In her own case, she didn't have any business background when she began to offer a number of outdoor programs with an Indigenous focus, from guided hikes all the way to tanning hides.

Today her Canmore-based business is booming, with German tour operators often bringing up to 60 people at a time to explore Indigenous culture in the pristine forested areas close by.

Her most popular attraction is a two-hour medicine walk where she teaches tourists about plants and how they're traditionally used.

"These are people that would come out and they didn't want to just go for a hike, they wanted to be a part of you, of your community," she said.

Brenda Holder guiding tourists on a medicine walk where she teaches about Indigenous plants and animals. (Supplied)

Understanding that tourists wanted the feeling of being on a real adventure, Holder came up with a series of hands-on traditional activities.

"We can show probably 16 different ways on how to do fire lighting, for example, without matches, or how to build a shelter for different seasons," she said.

The provincial Indigenous tourism organization is expected to be up and running by November.