Before COVID, Indigenous tourism was growing at 20 percent a year
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Before COVID, Indigenous tourism was growing at 20 percent a year

The pandemic has dealt a life-threatening blow to B.C.'s Indigenous tourism operators, but Brenda Baptiste sees a way forward

Tourism is often described in terms similar to manufacturing or mining, with industry reports tallying the number of operators, employees or customers (the tourists). But for Brenda Baptiste, chair of Indigenous Tourism BC (ITBC), the sector can also be seen through another, less transactional lens: that of community health.

“One of the biggest health issues we have in First Nations is poverty,” says Baptiste, a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band. The Osoyoos, under the leadership of Clarence Louie, is famously entrepreneurial, generating more revenue than it receives from federal transfers in recent years. “Tourism has allowed us to really look at how we can build economies, and create jobs and healthy outcomes, for our members.”

Baptiste’s intersectional approach to tourism is the product of lived experience. Born in Penticton, she started her career as a homecare worker but was encouraged by a colleague to return to Okanagan College and train as a registered nurse. “At that time, there were very few Indigenous nurses,” she says. “We didn’t think it was possible to be able to do that.”

She worked in community health with the Osoyoos for almost two decades, but eventually grew frustrated with the outcomes. One day, when Baptiste was talking to her grandmother, the proverbial light bulb went off. “She said to me: ‘Until our people understand who they are—and our youth understand their identity as Okanagan/Syilx people and are able to embrace and celebrate that—then they’re never going to be healthy.’”

In the early 2000s, Baptiste and fellow band members began work on what would become the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre—a project of economic development for the Osoyoos as well as a way to revitalize Okanagan/Syilx culture. She’s chaired ITBC, whose mandate is to grow and promote “a sustainable, culturally rich” sector within B.C. Indigenous communities, since 2005.

The province, Baptiste notes, is home to 200 of Canada’s 600 First Nations—each with its own distinct culture. “Haida is so different from the Okanagan, so different from the Tsleil-Waututh,” she says. “There is such a diversity of opportunity to experience the beauty of Indigenous culture within the province—which you don’t find anywhere else in Canada.”

In the early years of ITBC, relatively few communities were what Baptiste calls “market ready.” But over the past decade, things had really taken off, with annual growth of 20 percent in the years leading up to 2020. And then, of course, COVID hit. Baptiste estimates a revenue drop of 67 percent among ITBC’s members last year, with several operators going under; she isn’t projecting a return to 2019 revenue levels until 2024 at the earliest.

While it’s not news that the pandemic has devastated the tourism sector (see below), Baptiste says Indigenous tourism operators face some unique challenges. Chief among them: many Indigenous communities are remote, with limited access to health care; during the depths of the pandemic, many were shut to outsiders. “People were angry that Haida Gwaii was closed, but we needed to protect our communities and our visitors,” Baptiste says. “This land is healing, and it’s part of our cultural values and beliefs that you need to take that time to heal.”

As she looks ahead to this summer, Baptiste is hopeful that, with vaccine rollouts and a gradual lifting of travel restrictions, some Indigenous operators might salvage 2021. But she’s also realistic that for others—especially the fishing lodges and whale-watching operations so reliant on foreign tourists—any return to “normal” is still a long way off.

“One thing I will say about the COVID experience is that Indigenous people—we’re incredibly resilient,” Baptiste says. “We’ve gone through terrible things, and we’ve gone through pandemics before.”

And just like this pandemic, she adds, B.C. Indigenous communities will ultimately heal—and the tourists will return. 

Then and Now

Last year was one for the record books, as the Business Council of B.C. laid bare in a presentation to the B.C. Hospitality and Tourism conference in March. 

-87%

U.S. overnight visitor arrivals

-54%

Hotel occupancy rate (Metro Vancouver)

-43%

Hotel occupancy rate (Vancouver Island)

-68%

Domestic passenger volume, YVR

-79%

Victoria Airport passenger volume

-47%

Ferry passengers, Lower Mainland to Vancouver Island

-45%

Coquihalla Highway traffic volume