Aboriginal 'cultural' tourism booming in B.C.

Aboriginal tourism in B.C. earned $45 million last year, up from $20 million in 2012. The growing industry allows First Nations to showcase their cultural assets and make money without abusing their lands.

Travellers seeking cultural, spiritual and meaningful tourism experience

Squamish First Nation Chief Ian Campbell (seen here at a treaty ceremony in B.C.) promoted Aboriginal tourism at the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit in Namibia, Africa. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Squamish First Nation Chief Ian Campbell, wearing a cedar strip headdress and a sea shell-covered vest that makes clicking noises every time he moves, earned a standing ovation in Namibia, Africa, last fall for his passionate, no notes invitation to book an authentic aboriginal travel experience in British Columbia.

Campbell had the more than 600 delegates at the Adventure Travel World Summit standing and clapping — calling for more of what B.C.'s aboriginal tourism supporters are calling a cultural, spiritual and meaningful tourism experience.

Keith Henry, Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.'s chief executive officer, says he's had similar experiences in Australia and New Zealand, countries long considered innovators when it comes to developing aboriginal tourism markets, but it's the Aussies and Kiwis who now are looking to B.C. for new ideas.
Cree First Nation member Reta Blind, of Whitefish Lake, Sask., left, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nation member Rueben George, of North Vancouver, B.C., are obscured by smoke from burning sage in Vancouver, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

B.C.'s aboriginal-operated and -supported tourism vision has enormous appeal to travellers who look to make a cultural connection beyond downtown shopping and afternoons on the beach, Henry said.

"These are people who wouldn't come exclusively for an aboriginal experience, but they want to add it to their visit while they are here," he said. "And it's not just driving by a bunch of totems and saying, 'OK, that's it."'

Henry said the numbers of travellers wanting an aboriginal tourism experience in B.C. are increasing every year, and he believes it's tied to the authenticity being offered travellers. Aboriginal tourism in B.C. earned $45 million last year, up from $20 million in 2012.

"We've been brought to Australia. We've been brought to New Zealand," said Henry. "We're being brought to the States and into Europe to explain how we're developing aboriginal tourism. In Australia and New Zealand, the home of aboriginal tourism, a lot of that is government owned and government run. The benefits aren't flowing back to the communities."
Traditional chiefs from the Heilsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, B.C. (Robin Rowland/Canadian Press)

"Ours is aboriginal owned and controlled," said Henry.

On Vancouver's north shore, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation operates Takaya Tours, which offers nature experiences for travellers that includes guided salmon adventures, nature walks and traditional sea-going canoe voyages up Burrard Inlet and Indian Arm where the tourists do the paddling. But the traditional heavy wood-carved canoes have been modified to make the voyage a bit easier on travellers.

"They've made these fibreglass ones, because to row a traditional one would be backbreaking work," said Henry. "It's not for the faint of heart even with a fibreglass one. You actually get to hear what it meant to the people who lived there for thousands of years."

Stanley Park's Klahowya Village in Vancouver saw 70,000 visitors last year.

Aboriginal cuisine is offered at the Kekuli Cafe at West Bank, near Kelowna.

Aboriginal Journeys at Campbell River on Vancouver Island offers grizzly bear and whale watching, and at Klemtu on the remote central coast visitors to Spirit Bear Lodge have the opportunity to see rare white spirit bears.

It's not just about pipelines and mines. This is actually something that communities kind of support without getting into a whole bunch of conflict.- Keith Henry, Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.

"One in four visitors from research we've got and been part of want an aboriginal experience," Henry said. "How do we capture that? We've found a way to develop authentic aboriginal tourism where the communities are really engaged."

He said much of his work in recent years has been convincing aboriginal communities to embrace tourism as an opportunity to showcase what he calls their cultural assets and make money without abusing their lands.

"When we talk about economic opportunities, this is about real jobs and a way that brings cultural revitalization forward," said Henry. "It's not just about pipelines and mines. This is actually something that communities kind of support without getting into a whole bunch of conflict."
First Nations hold hands and dance in a circle during a demonstration at the Douglas-Peace Arch crossing on the Canada-U.S. border near Surrey, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

He said aboriginal tourism primarily involves allowing people from outside aboriginal communities to participate in their lives. It is nowhere near as drastic as giving up traditional territory for resource extraction, Henry said.

"People say, 'Wow, we get to share our culture and people really want to hear about it."'

Next month in Whistler, Henry's aboriginal tourism association, hosts an international aboriginal tourism conference that will explore expanding aboriginal tourism globally. Delegates from across Canada and the United States are attending as well as others from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Bulgaria and Namibia.


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