Canada was a hot destination for tourists in 2018, and according to new research, a growing number of visitors are coming for the country’s expanding Indigenous tourism offerings.
Research released Thursday by the Conference Board of Canada and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada shows the direct economic benefit of Indigenous tourism increased by 23.2 per cent to $1.7 billion between 2014 and 2017.
Those results came as Destination Canada released figures showing the country’s tourism industry had its second consecutive record-breaking year in 2018 with 21.13 million visitors. It’s the first time visitation has crossed the 21-million mark.
Keith Henry, chief executive of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, said the report shows the impact the sector has on the national economy.
“Investments in Indigenous tourism are paying off for all of Canada,” he said, adding there is huge potential for growth.
Henry said the industry saw some of that in 2018, with increased visits from the U.S., China and Europe, as well as strong support for Indigenous tourism products from the domestic market.
“Demand is growing, in fact it’s a real challenge for us to meet the demand,” he said.
Henry said their challenge is having enough product across the country.
The report said there are 1,875 Indigenous tourism businesses across Canada, 341 of which are in B.C. The industry employs 39,000 people, though only about half of those are identified as Indigenous.
The report noted Ontario employs the most people in the sector with 12,924 jobs, followed by B.C. with 6,957 jobs. In terms of economic impact Ontario saw $622 million, while B.C. hit $260 million.
Henry said they have identified three main barriers: ensuring businesses have the right infrastructure in place such as point of sales systems, marketing and ability to deal with trade and media; access to capital to continue to build products; and a trained Indigenous labour force.
“We just do not have enough trained Indigenous people working in our industry,” he said. “The reality is people want to experience culture authentically so we need a well-trained Indigenous person providing that.”
Tourism industry consultant Frank Bourree, principal of Chemistry Consulting, agrees there is strong growth potential for the industry, especially on the coast.
He noted his company has done a number of studies that showed great promise for building boutique hotels, lodges and marinas on First Nations land.
“They have some of the most beautiful real estate in the world and there’s real opportunity in that,” he said. “The cultural offering we have here is also quite significant. Both Destination B.C. and Destination Greater Victoria use a lot of Indigenous images and culture to try and differentiate the region [from other destinations].
“It is a big draw. For [visitors] it’s one of the reasons they want to come and experience Vancouver Island,” he said. “It’s a very valid product and it’s starting to emerge as First Nations embrace it.”
The report noted the Indigenous tourism sector is growing faster than Canadian tourism activity overall. Indigenous tourism employment has increased 17.3 per cent in three years, versus 5.1 per cent for the broader industry, and economic impact jumped 23.2 per cent, outpacing the Canadian tourism growth of 14.5 per cent.
“The findings of this study are very encouraging, and I am pleased to see that Indigenous tourism is thriving in Canada. Tourism is one of our nation’s most important growth opportunities and provides economic benefits in every region of our country,” said federal Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly.
The entire Canadian tourism industry saw overnight arrivals from countries other than the U.S. reach an all-time high of 6.7 million in 2018, representing 32 per cent of total arrivals.
According to Destination Canada, the marketing organization that sells Canada to the world, overseas tourists are key as they typically stay longer and spend more.
The strong results are being attributed to Destination Canada’s marketing, visa changes for key markets like China and Mexico, and expanded capacity on airlines — last year flight capacity increased by six per cent or two million passenger seats compared with 2017.
Bourree believes Canada could better those numbers in 2019.
“There’s been a deflection away from the U.S. by [international travellers] that I think we have been picking up, our economy remains strong and that means the domestic market will still be there,” he said. “I don’t see a slowing in tourism.”