The Rise of Aboriginal Tourism in B.C.

Aboriginal tourism is becoming a key player in B.C.’s $13.4-billion tourism industry – and it’s our First Nations that are dictating the terms.

Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre | BCBusiness
The gleaming glass and wood Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Squamish, B.C.

Aboriginal tourism is becoming a key player in B.C.’s $13.4-billion tourism industry – and it’s our First Nations that are dictating the terms.

At the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, employees form a drum circle every morning to welcome the day and go over morning announcements. As visitors wander through the front door they are handed a noisemaker and brought into the fold. On this particular morning in late March, a photographer weaves in and out of the group, grabbing stills for an upcoming promotional campaign as employees sing songs from both the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations.

Aboriginal Tourism at a Glance

• Aboriginal tourism in B.C. has grown from a $20- million industry in 2006 to $42 million today

• There are an estimated 275 aboriginal tourism businesses in B.C.

• The typical aboriginal-tourism customer is a well-educated, upper- middle-income-earning, female baby boomer

• The average aboriginal-tourism customer spends 13 days in the province, three of which are devoted to aboriginal experiences

• Aboriginal-tourism customers spend more money per trip than other tourists to the province

Source: Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C., from interviews with 2,400 aboriginal-tourism visitors

The gleaming glass and wood centre is part of a $33-million investment by the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations that includes job training and exhibit development. It is one of 11 aboriginal cultural centres promoted by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C., and has garnered several awards, including the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s 2010 National Cultural Tourism Award and the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.’s 2012 Cultural Centres and Attractions Award. The centre is an example of a small but growing industry looking to build upon the traction gained through exposure during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Cultural centres form the backbone of the aboriginal tourism industry in B.C. Keith Henry, CEO of the provincial association, estimates that 60 per cent of aboriginal tourism is based on a planned visit to these centres. The centres themselves are touted as examples of ways that First Nations people have taken control of exhibiting their culture to the rest of the world, and they range from rural outposts that double as local community centres to the sophisticated Whistler venture that is vying for global clientele.

Josh Anderson, guest services coordinator for the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre and member of the Lil’wat Nation, says the cultural centre has changed people’s perceptions. “It is creating positive recognition through tourism,” he notes. “People are visiting our traditional territories and discovering that we are alive and well.”

According to statistics from Aboriginal Tourism B.C., the provincial aboriginal tourism industry has grown from $20 million in 2006 to $42 million in 2012. Aboriginal tourism is a small, but developing player in a $13.4-billion-a-year provincial tourism industry.

In January, Aboriginal Tourism B.C. unveiled a five-year, $10-million plan to increase revenue to $68 million by 2017, and create nearly 4,000 jobs. The provincial association has raised $2 million to date and is currently looking for $8 million more in federal and provincial funding. The province has also earmarked aboriginal tourism as a focus over the next five years as part of an overall tourism growth strategy that includes skiing, snowboarding and city touring.

According to Henry, aboriginal tourism fits into a maturing global tourism industry: “It works well with tourists who come here more than one time. We are competing with people globally. There are beautiful landscapes all over the world, but people want to know our story. People like looking for an education piece and an experience piece, such as trying local cuisine.”

Xaays Canoe
Image: Paul Joseph
The Xaays Canoe by Squamish carver Ray Natraoro
in the Great Hall of the Lil’wat Cultural Centre.

In smaller communities, the cultural centres serve as a community hub where locals can take courses and share their culture. The newer, larger centres such as the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler are set up so that the spaces can easily be leased for large group events. There is typically a museum component or live performance venue associated with the centres. All are established as symbolic and literal representations of First Nations’ living culture and seen as anchors to the aboriginal tourism industry as a whole.

B.C.’s flagship cultural centre is ’Ksan Historical Village in Hazelton. The remote centre, built in 1970 by local Gitxsan Nation members and the municipality, is a reconstructed Gitxsan village with seven traditional red cedar longhouses, a museum, carving workshop, silkscreen studio, multi-purpose building and three touring houses. “’Ksan has contributed enormously to our local tourism industry as it attracts both national and international visitors,” says Laurel Mould, executive director of ’Ksan Historical Village. “I would say ’Ksan was the flagship for aboriginal tourism activity in Canada. Today, amazing cultural spaces can be found across Canada. ’Ksan is established as a not-for-profit facility. It earns money through its gift shop and guided tours, and is able to employ Mould full-time, as well as a curator and eight seasonal positions that pay between $12 and $14 an hour.

Image: Paul Joseph
Visitors at the Lil’wat Cultural Centre
are greeted warmly.

The Haida Heritage Centre, a cultural centre located on Haida Gwaii, has been open for five years. Attached to the Haida Gwaii Museum, the cultural centre is made up of a cluster of low-lying buildings including a carving shed, teaching centre, performance house, temporary gallery and classrooms. Admission for adults is $15. Until 2011, the centre was run by the Skidegate Band Council. It now operates as an independent, non-profit group and covers 35 per cent of its expenses by renting out its facility to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. All together, eight different organizations use the centre throughout the year.

One important activity at the Haida Heritage Centre is the job training program, run in partnership with Northwest Community College. As important is the Haida cultural ambassador program, where students learn to give cultural tours about totem poles. Haida canoes and weaving are other popular programs at the centre. “The Haida Heritage Centre is a training ground and important space for the transitioning economy of Haida Gwaii,” explains Haida Heritage Centre CEO Jason Alsop. “Here there are people all learning how to contribute to a sustainable economy in the arts and culture, forestry, sport fishing, tourism, conservation and natural resource management sectors.”

The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre is also a not-for-profit organization, which supports 29 jobs. Revenue comes from the $18 admission fee, evening events, a café and gift shop. In the gift shop, the larger pieces of art are sold on consignment, with 75 per cent going to First Nations artisans. The centre was designed to accommodate large corporate events and weddings; many of the objects in the main hall can be lifted to the ceiling with a sophisticated pulley system to make room for crowds. The centre also has catering agreements with several neighbouring hotels. In addition, the centre cross-promotes itself by sending story-telling guides on the Rocky Mountaineer trains.

While their cultural programs play an important role, the cultural centres as a group struggle to break even, and rely on government and private grants for support. Keith Henry says that making the heritage centres sustainable is one of the top goals of Aboriginal Tourism B.C. “We consider cultural centres our anchor tenants, symbolic showpieces,” he notes. “Are they making a huge amount of money yet? No, but they are our number one priority.”

Aboriginal tourism consultant Beverley O’Neil compares the centres to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., lined with museums and monuments. “The Mall in Washington could be the reason why you go to Washington, D.C., but it is not where the money is made,” says O’Neil. “Visitors then visit hotels, restaurants and other non-profit business in the region. Unless they are going to Club Med in Cancún, tourists do not typically buy a single product, but a key attraction can be the reason for their entire trip.”

Image: Paul Joseph
Visitors are encouraged to partake in First
Nation rituals at the Lil’wat Cultural Centre.

With aboriginal cultural sites spread throughout the province, the industry is continuing to find ways to promote and improve access to its product. For example, Western Economic Diversification Canada, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Canadian Heritage have joined with the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre to develop a self-guided cultural journey along the Sea-to-Sky corridor that leads to the Whistler-based centre. Seven kiosks are located between North Vancouver and Whistler – including viewpoints and picnic areas – where tourists can learn about aboriginal culture and points of interest, such as the Stawamus Chief and Brandywine Falls Provincial Park.

Nathalie Macfarlane, director and curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay’llnagaay attached to the Haida Heritage Centre in Haida Gwaii, says access can be an obstacle to aboriginal tourism. “It is an amazing experience for travellers once they are here, but it can be very expensive to come here,” she says. “People didn’t want to build the cruise ship economy because it was too much development. It is a big effort to preserve our islands’ landscape and at the same time develop tourism that is respectful.”

’Ksan is in a remote location and a destination for people en route to Alaska or Prince Rupert, says ’Ksan Historical Village’s Mould. “Local restaurants have increased activity during the summer months because of ’Ksan. I don’t believe local motels and bed-and-breakfasts are getting the business they hoped for due to the fact that people are passing through. Larger communities east and west of Hazelton tend to get ’Ksan traffic.”

Image: Paul Joseph
Totem at the Lil’wat Cultural Centre.

Assistant deputy tourism minister Grant Mackay describes aboriginal tourism as a small, but developing player in the $13.4-billion annual provincial tourism industry that has gained momentum as baby boomers age, pointing out that it dovetails nicely with a trend toward active vacations. “In the past, people would get on a tour bus and be spectators,” says Mackay. “Today’s baby boomers are more active than past generations. They want to participate more.” He adds that aboriginal tourism is one of many primary motivators for travel in B.C., and is a popular component in multi-day travel packages. The province and Aboriginal Tourism B.C. plan to work together to ensure that aboriginal experiences are included in package tours developed by tour operators.

O’Neil says that a decade ago many indigenous people were reluctant to get involved in tourism. “There was apprehension on selling out our culture and losing control,” she explains. “But what we help teach is this is a way for people who don’t know who we are to come celebrate with us. It has revived our culture and given our youth pride and opportunities.”

Macfarlane says that one of the most important aspects of the museum is its focus on the current story of the First Nations people. Contemporary commissioned pieces from weavers and woodcarvers bring the museum into the present. The museum recently announced plans to create a European travelling exhibit of First Nations artifacts with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and McCord Museum, both in Quebec. The Haida Museum will be recording current audio and video of the First Nations people as part of the exhibit. “It is very contemporary,” says Macfarlane. “It is a very fresh and exciting way of presenting culture. Instead of recreating the past we are pulling the past into the present.