The first ever indigenous tourism forum for the province was held in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Feb. 12 and 13. The forum was organized by the indigenous groups in the province and funded through the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).
Jillian Larkham, director of Tourism Culture, Recreation & Tourism with the Nunatsiavut government and the ITAC board representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, said ITAC had some funding for each province and territory to either develop or further develop indigenous tourism in the province so she went to Nunacor to see they were interested in applying.
“They said yes so we brought together these groups from across the province for this first time ever to discuss how to move forward provincially with indigenous tourism,” she said.
Rich Lewis, operations manager for Nunacor, said they thought it was a great idea to bring all five indigenous groups in the province together to talk about where they are, how they can move forward as a collective and really advance tourism.
“Just bringing everybody together for these two days, even in the planning phase of this forum, was really good for us,” he said. “To sit down at a table, really for the first time, the five indigenous groups in the province to discuss tourism and where we’re at, we can work together and move forward.”
He said they know that the provinces with organizations and staff dedicated to indigenous tourism were much further along in indigenous tourism. Newfoundland and Labrador don’t have that right now so that’s one of the gaps they hope to close.
Larkham said while there are indigenous representatives on the different tourism boards in the province it really isn’t not enough to move indigenous tourism forward in the province. She said they really needed to come together and discuss how they can move forward as a collective group while still working with various government departments.
“The catalyst for us is the establishment of the Mealy Mountain National Park,” Lewis said. “Eventually we’re going to get to a point where Nunatukavut, Nunatsiavut and the Innu Nation are going to offer three very unique, distinct cultural experiences related to the Mealy Mountain National Park and to Labrador. That way visitors coming to the national park and to Labrador will get to experience the three unique cultural experiences. I think that’s the ultimate goal here in Labrador, and on a broader view, the whole province.”
He said they hope they can take the lead in Labrador on tourism for the new national park, much like the groups on the island work with the parks to advance tourism.
Keith Henry, president and CEO of ITAC, was also in attendance at the conference and said in the last two years they estimate about 70 million people were looking for an indigenous tourism experience.
“We don’t have enough places market-ready that we can actually send them to,” he told the Labradorian. “Our interest is to help move the industry along, but really the demand has never been higher.”
He said tourism is very much on the rise across Canada but indigenous tourism is growing for a couple of reasons. Communities see this as a way of providing a platform for people to learn, he said.
“That’s around reconciliation, around education and awareness, cultural sustainability and revitalization for communities and entrepreneurs.”
The other main reason, he said, is that there’s an economic opportunity. The resource sectors, such as oil and gas, mining, the forestry and fishing, aren’t what they used to be for many communities so they’re looking for other areas for economic development and tourism is just another very logical path for communities and entrepreneurs.
An example Henry gave was in British Columbia, where tourists could go watch bears with a lot of non-indigenous operators.
“That’s not what people want now; they want to understand how it relates to the local indigenous culture,” Henry said. “What’s the story behind this? Is there a story behind this? We’re seeing a demand for that niche storytelling and understanding how it’s relevant to local indigenous culture. People want to know the story. There’s a real business advantage to that in the entire tourism industry.”
He said the growth in this type of tourism is both domestic and international, because people want to know the real history of Canada.
“Canada isn’t just 150 years old, although we’ve positioned it that way. The reality is indigenous people have been here for thousands of years and the world knows that. The world is getting educated on that and they want to understand. The days of mass tourism are waning, people are looking for unique experiences, they’re willing to spend more money, they want to learn, they want to have fun but also something they’ve never experienced before. In many ways indigenous tourism and indigenous culture provides that for all of Canada as a destination.”
Henry said from his perspective there are great indigenous leaders on the ground here but one of the purpose of this forum is also trying to get everyone else, industry partners like ACOA, Parks Canada, and others, on board. Lewis agreed, saying he thinks it really opened the eyes to a lot of tourism stakeholders
“They’ve been really impressed by the presentations and the progress and I think it’s going to be much easier for us now to go to them and request further capacity in indigenous tourism. I think that’s one of the big take away for me from this forum for sure.”