Tourism is a powerful way for Indigenous peoples to preserve and value their cultures and languages.
The sold-out eighth International Indigenous Tourism Conference took place in Kelowna, B.C. on the traditional territory of the Syilx Nation, November 12 to 14, 2019. The meeting, attended by 704 delegates, was a clear sign not only that the extraordinary beauty of Native peoples’ culture is becoming recognized, but that it is also burgeoning.
As Dr. Wade Davis, anthropologist, said …
“Indigenous cultures and languages are treasure houses of knowledge that are under threat, but must be preserved and valued.”
This conference, the largest in the world, showed that tourism is a powerful way for Indigenous peoples to achieve this goal, and also gain the extra bonus of establishing a sustainable economy. Tourism also educates the public in Native ways, which will help Indigenous peoples regain the rights they have lost.
In Canada, Indigenous tourism is seeing unprecedented growth with great demand and huge opportunities. Keith Henry, the president and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) summed it up well, “Just three years into our five-year plan, ITAC has surpassed all economic indicator targets we have set: increasing the number of Indigenous tourism businesses, Indigenous tourism jobs, and Indigenous tourism revenues for Canada.”
The conference, with its theme of “Inspire. Transform. Unite. Accelerating Indigenous tourism growth.” was designed to help make the success continue and grow.
A preconference tour for media and a choice of three tours for delegates on the first morning of the conference served to highlight the richness of the Indigenous presence in the Thompson and Okanagan region. Tours visited the Sncewips Heritage Museum and Indigenous World Winery in Kelowna; the En’owkin Centre in Penticton; the N’Kmip Winery, cultural centre and resort in Osoyoos; the Quaaout Resort with a pithouse, golf course and petroglyph walk near Chase; the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park in Kamloops; the Splatsin Community Centre in Enderby; the Kekuli Cafe in Merritt and much more. The tours clearly showed that an abundance of Indigenous culture thrives in central BC, and that it is varied and different from the First Nations’ culture along the coast.
At the Grand Opening a drum group thundered as dancers in regalia, honour guards bearing flags and numerous dignitaries mounted the stage. Chief Chris Derickson of the local Westbank Nation told the audience, “This is more than a Grand Entrance, we’re a serious industry with enormous potential.”
Many speakers followed. Afterwards there were plenary sessions and numerous development breakouts featuring topics like Indigenous Culinary Tourism, Working with Parks Canada, Women in Entrepreneurship, International Partnerships and much more. ITAC, the main conference organizer, placed emphasis on developing the strategies and processes for Indigenous businesses to reach export readiness.
In a Keynote presentation, Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk to play in the National Hockey League, motivated the audience by speaking not only of the grit and resilience needed to overcome adversity in the pursuit of excellence, but also of his personal dealings with suicide, a subject that moved many in the audience.
Sarain Fox, the host of APTN’s Future History, an activist and performer, spoke passionately and elegantly about the diverse perspectives and knowledge within the Indigenous community and how she looks forward to a brighter future.
Conferences, of course, are all about networking, and the IITC provided ample opportunities. At the opening Welcome Reception smiling attendees formed long lines to sample cuisine from top indigenous chefs, and wine from the Indigenous World and N’Kmip wineries. Then they were dazzled by a Fashion Show, which presented colourful interpretations of traditional designs.
The Marketplace, which featured 37 booths of Indigenous crafts, services and tourism outlets, was also a great place to rub shoulders and exchange ideas.
Although representatives from Australia, New Zealand, USA, Taiwan, Mexico and Chile attended, sadly, no national overviews were presented. At the International Panel, presentations only touched on projects in which ITAC was involved. It would have been useful to learn how Indigenous tourism is progressing in other countries.
With more than 1,875 Indigenous businesses participating in the Indigenous tourism sector in Canada, the awards gala, which recognized outstanding achievements, was much anticipated. Winners covered a breathtaking spectrum, including igloos in Nunavut, a residential school converted to a luxury resort, tours with grizzlies, Indigenous cuisine and much, much more.
I can hardly wait to see the progress a year from now at the 2020 conference in Winnipeg.