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Indigenous tourism on the rise

Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada president discusses authenticity and opportunity at July 19 Whistler Chamber lunch

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Fostering Indigenous tourism can give Whistler a "competitive advantage" when it comes to international tourism, a leader in the field told a packed Whistler Chamber of Commerce lunch last week.

Keith Henry, president of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), highlighted the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, as a huge asset to Whistler on the authenticity front.

"It just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. As an industry, we're extremely proud of that that facility," he said, adding that such institutions are "anchor tenants" of Indigenous tourism.

"Those are the places that we know are going to be open all year, that we can bring into market and promote through different sales channels."

Guests of the July 19 Whistler Chamber Power Lunch were treated to an overview of the field of Indigenous tourism.

Henry shared the organization's efforts to grow the sector, partner with non-Indigenous stakeholders, and foster authentic Indigenous business and tourism.

"A big challenge we have in Canada, both in tourism and elsewhere, is educating about who are the Indigenous people and what is their story," said Henry, who is Métis.

According to Henry, Indigenous tourism already makes up around $1.5 billion of Canada's $90-billion tourism industry.

In his presentation, he discussed "The Path Forward," a five-year strategic plan designed to grow Indigenous tourism that was released in 2016 by ITAC.

The plan's target goals for 2021 include growing Indigenous tourism by $300 million, creating a total of 40,233 Indigenous tourism workers and 50 new major Indigenous tourism operators.

It is vital, said Henry, that Indigenous culture, in its various forms, is presented in authentic ways, as historically there has been a tendency to present stereotyped versions of it.

"For us, authenticity is really important—it has a bit more of a deeper meaning, I would argue," he said.

As part of his presentation, Henry highlighted the Wya Point Resort in Ucluelet as an example of a First Nations-run business that puts the spotlight on Indigenous culture in a sound way.

"Wya Point is an example where the Nation there—the Ucluelet First Nation—has put together a luxury resort with a very low environmental impact. It's really a five-star experience, and it's one of the most beautiful places I've seen," he said following the presentation.

"It shares culture in a really gentle way. It's part of the lodge design; it's part of the storyboards around the lodges."

Dan Baxter, policy director for the BC Chamber of Commerce, said the province's business community expects tourism to grow over the next 10 years and that Indigenous tourism will play a major role.

"This economic opportunity will be driven by unique, authentic experiences like those promoted by our Indigenous communities. Like other export products, our tourism products benefit from a strong Canada brand," sad Baxter.

Local MLA Jordan Sturdy said that while supporting Indigenous tourism in Whistler is great, it's important for the province to support Indigenous tourism within First Nations territories as well.

"Aboriginal businesses are not just about Whistler," said Sturdy.

"They're about being on the land, interpreting things, and generating an authentic experience. And that I think is best done in the territory in some ways."

Lil'wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson said that Henry's discussion of authenticity was important.

"I think it's mostly about having other people understand who we are and what we do.

"Because we are not all the same—First Nations are not all the same. We have different cultures, from here to Vancouver, it's quite different, how we live.

"I always say if we are going to be partnering with somebody they have to understand where we were, where we are now, and where we hope to be—on our terms, not on anyone else's terms."

Nelson said that he would like to see Lil'wat Nation play a more prominent role in Whistler, to have Lil'wat people share their connection to the land and mountains outside of the SLCC.

"We've never really told that (story), you know, other than what's in the cultural centre," he said.

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