Indigenous tourism’s potential is vast

First Nations should present their cultural, spiritual and ecological assets to tourists

Many years ago, I learned an important lesson about tourism while travelling on Via Rail.

As a first-class passenger, I enjoyed sitting in the dome car, where I could get a full view of the countryside. At one point, I zoned out and someone was trying to get my attention. Pointing outside, he gestured at the very tall smokestack at Sudbury. The Inco Superstack was, at the time, the world’s largest free-standing smokestack. He spoke eloquently about the structure as people admired it from the train.

I grew up about an hour and a half from Sudbury, in Spanish, Ont. I’d passed this structure many times and it had become just part of the landscape.

I laughed to myself at those admiring it. But then I realized the joke was on me.

This structure was, in fact, a marvel. The problem was I had taken it for granted.

We all take our surroundings for granted. That day, I learned a lesson: What’s normal to some people is estraordinary for others.

Like the man who encouraged those people to admire the world-famous smokestack in Sudbury, we all need to get into the minds of others. To them, new sights are a welcome relief from their known surroundings, ones that they take for granted.

European visitors to North America are used to small countries with few wild forests. They’re often amazed by Canada’s size and natural beauty. But we Canadians take it for granted that Canada, the second largest country in the world, has vast natural beauty.

Prince Edward Islanders know that Cavendish, the setting for the Anne of Green Gables novels, is a worldwide draw even if the fiction of Lucy Maud Montgomery is common knowledge to them.

Indigenous peoples must also realize that they can develop their economies by appealing to others. A study by Destination Canada and the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada shows that there’s a growing interest among visitors from Europe and the United States about authentic Indigenous experiences.

The report’s authors claim that Indigenous tourism has grown from an $890-million industry in 2002 to about $1.5 billion today. If some First Nations want to limit their dependence on oil and gas and mining, this is an important way to do it.

First Nations all over Canada engage in cultural and spiritual activities that are commonplace to them but intensely unique and interesting to tourists.

Many Indigenous communities are in remote regions. In Manitoba, for example, several First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg have an interest in obtaining United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site designation for the rich boreal forests around their communities.

Spotted Lake near Osoyoos, B.C., is another example. This body of water is held sacred by the Okanagan people and is known for its high concentration of minerals and brightly-coloured pools. To the Okanagan, this protected heritage lake has healing properties. There’s a roadside sign alerting travellers to the site and some tourists stop to look but the site isn’t developed. It could be.

Indigenous peoples should begin to develop cultural and ecological tourism projects. Sun dances, potlatches and powwows can draw tourists to their communities.

Even though these cultural events may be sacred to Indigenous people, there’s no contradiction in using them to draw paid tourism.

Indigenous communities could help tourists explore different perspectives, and experience the natural world in new ways.

First Nations should take an inventory of their cultural, spiritual and ecological assets, then engage in honest policy development about how those assets can be presented to appeal to tourists.

Like me looking at the Sudbury smokestack, Indigenous people need to imagine how others would see their world. That perspective just might spawn new tourism opportunities and lead to greater Indigenous independence.

– Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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