Yukon Indigenous tourism should grow responsibly, say advocates

'We want to ensure tourism is something that happens with Yukon First Nations, not to them,' said one delegate at an Indigenous tourism conference in Carcross this week.

Industry has great potential but seeks to remain 'meaningful' as targets set for next decade

A conference in Carcross on Wednesday included the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, the government of Yukon, and Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association, who are all pledging to help grow Yukon's Indigenous tourism industry. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon is helping lead the way when it comes to Indigenous tourism, says a national industry group. 

And while delegates at a conference in Carcross this week agreed they want the sector to grow, they said they want it done with care for cultural protocols — favouring small, local and Indigenous-owned businesses.

Victoria Fred, vice-president of the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association (YFNCT), said there are concerns about growth and commodification.

"How can we support entrepreneurs when they're developing their product, so they feel they're maintaining their integrity?" she asked. 

"We want to ensure tourism is something that happens with Yukon First Nations, not to them."

The YFNCT is pledging to help increase Indigenous tourism in Yukon by 50 per cent over the next decade.   

New exposure: One new initiative is the publication of an Indigenous tourism guide, distributed to passengers on Air North flights. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Sector growing in B.C., Quebec and Yukon

Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, said Canada's Indigenous tourism sector is growing, particularly in B.C., Quebec and Yukon. 

He said demand is growing for "authentic" experiences with Indigenous culture. 

One example he mentions from Yukon is the Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp, run by James Allen, a former chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

Henry visited the site in July and says he was delighted. The group listened to stories around a crackling campfire.

"I loved seeing Champagne and Aishihik First Nation territory, and seeing the full moon overlooking Kluane Lake just can't be put into words," Henry wrote on social media at the time. 

The definition of Indigenous tourism can be debated — for instance, whether it means a business being Indigenous-owned or having Indigenous employees such as guides.

One example of Indigenous tourism in Yukon is Kwäday Dän Kenji — Long Ago Peoples Place — which has been open for 20 years, near the community of Champagne. Here, John Fingland shows visitors a traditional Southern Tutchone shelter. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The YFNCT points to numbers from the Conference Board of Canada, which says there are 67 tourism-related businesses with Indigenous ownership in Yukon.

The listing includes companies which have Indigenous partners but are not majority-Indigenous owned.

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada says that nationally, there are 139 Indigenous tourism businesses, and that the sector employs more than 41,000 people.

At the conference in Carcross, Henry told delegates that industry needs a coordinated approach to growth. For instance, he said Carcross will be limited in its growth until it has accommodations to offer beyond campgrounds and small-scale bed & breakfasts. 

Tlingit artist and carver Keith Wolfe Smarch shows visitors around the Carcross Learning Centre and the totems he helped create. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

'You must respect culture'

Whispering Trees Adventures is a Yukon-based company founded by Jonathan Alsberghe, who immigrated to Canada from France. His company has partnered with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations and works with local guides who offer tours on traditional trails. 

"It's an immense amount of research and work, to find partners," Alsberghe said.

"You have to earn people's trust and approach people with respect. You must respect culture, and not try to impose things. You have to see what people want to share," he said. 

Jonathan Alsberghe's company hires Indigenous guides for cultural tours on traditional trails within Champagne and Aishihik territory. Setting up the business has required research and a respectful approach, he says. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Marilyn Jensen, president of YFNCT, says Indigenous people must be in control of any industry that uses their culture to draw people in. She says cultural tourism can remain meaningful, if it's done right.

"As we focus on self-determination and sustainability, we need to build viable industries in our communities. We feel this is a way we can really be in the lead of that," she said.

Jeannie Dendys, Yukon's minister of Culture and Tourism, said this week's conference will inform work on a new Yukon tourism development strategy. So far, the process has received 12,000 comments and held public meetings across Yukon. 

Dendys told delegates that the promise of Indigenous tourism is about "creating an ethical space in the middle, where we can collaborate."