In an exclusive interview with Travel and Tour World, Keith Henry, President and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) talks about the indigenous tourism industry of Canada, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector and the organisation’s efforts to step towards an eventual recovery of indigenous tourism industry in the country.
Travel And Tour World: Tell us something about the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).
Keith Henry: The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) is the principal organization with the aim of growing the indigenous tourism industry across the country. Guided by a vision to create and foster a thriving Indigenous tourism economy, ITAC establishes relationships with other groups and regions with similar mandates to form a network of operators across the country offering rich, transformative travel experiences that showcase a modern, authentic culture. By uniting the Indigenous tourism industry in Canada, ITAC works to enable collective support, product development, promotion and marketing of authentic Indigenous cultural tourism businesses in a respectful protocol.
Travel And Tour World: Share how the indigenous tourism sector functions in Canada. What are the authentic indigenous experiences travelers can look forward to while visiting Canada?
Keith Henry: Today, ITAC has 863 members; however, it acts on behalf of the best interest of the Indigenous tourism industry as a whole (1700 SMEs) to deliver authentic, memorable and enriching experiences. In order to do so, and help the industry rebuild post-COVID-19, ITAC launched ‘Destination Indigenous’ a domestic marketing campaign specifically encouraging, highlighting and educating travelers about the Indigenous experiences across the country that are welcoming Canadians as travel restrictions are loosened.
Travel And Tour World: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the indigenous tourism industry in Canada?
Keith Henry: Prior to 2020, Indigenous tourism was outpacing Canadian tourism activity overall and international demand for Indigenous experiences was at an all-time high but COVID-19 has put the industry and individual operators in jeopardy.
ITAC partnered with the Conference Board of Canada (CBOC) to survey Canada’s Indigenous tourism sector and research shows that, due to COVID-19 and the global tourism industry grinding to a halt, there will be a 59.4 percent decline in employment (down to 14,624 jobs) in 2020 and a 65.9 percent decline in direct GDP (down to $555 million), compared to 2019. The CBOC findings also estimate that around 714 Indigenous businesses could be at risk of closure in 2020-2021.
For a full picture of how COVID-19 has affected the Indigenous tourism sector, ITAC released a report on the financial challenges facing tourism operators and recommended stimulus solutions. It has also been working with government and regional partners to develop plans to sustain and recover Indigenous tourism in the face of COVID-19, releasing a revised 2020-2021 action plan and 2020-2024 recovery strategy.
Travel And Tour World: What are the challenges faced by ITAC due to the coronavirus pandemic?
Keith Henry: Travel restrictions and community safety protocols have both impacted the Indigenous tourism sector these past few months – with no one allowed to visit and participate in Indigenous tourism experiences. We have spent much of our time recently advocating for federal funding relief for our tourism operators who have lost financial stability; working with governments, financial institutions and other partners to provide for the members of our community. Ensuring their wellbeing, both physically and financially, has been the biggest driver of our efforts and we are committed to helping the community as a whole recover from COVID and building a more resilient future.
Travel And Tour World: As the world has finally started taking steps towards reopening the tourism sector, how has the ITAC planned to recover indigenous tourism in Canada?
Keith Henry: While in the past, International visitors have been the biggest economic contributors to Indigenous tourism, this year we have turned our focus to promoting domestic travel – what better time than now to learn about the history and culture of Canada’s original inhabitants? We launched a new direct booking platform where travelers can learn about the Indigenous experiences available across the country that they can experience right now as internal restrictions loosen. We are working with individual operators and communities across the country to determine when and how each will be open to visitors and the site will be continually updated as new experiences become available
Travel And Tour World: How will the indigenous tourism industry of Canada function as a part of the ‘new normal’?
Keith Henry: Community safety will always be our number one priority – we will never encourage or promote travel to or within our communities without tribal or community approval. Once an operator does open, they will follow all health and safety regulations recommended by federal, provincial and regional agencies to ensure safe experiences for guests.
Travel And Tour World: How does the future of indigenous tourism industry look like in Canada in the post-pandemic world?
Keith Henry: The future is bright. While the pandemic was certainly a setback for the industry, our people and communities are resilient, and we will rebuild to pre-COVID levels and beyond – although we know it will take some time. If there can be a silver-lining to this difficult time, we hope that this will refocus Canadians’ travel appetites to looking within Canada to find the beauty that this country has to offer rather than travelling abroad. While we hope to one day be able to welcome international visitors once again at Indigenous tourism experiences, we are excited at the prospect of sharing our history and culture with more Canadians than ever before.