Tourism businesses run by B.C.’s First Nations have grown into a $700-million industry—with some bumps along the road

Tourism businesses run by B.C.'s First Nations have grown into a $700-million industry. Those involved note that it's been a bumpy road at times

Credit: Courtesy of Indigenous Tourism BC

Councillor Trevor Cootes (second from right) aims to make his nation a bigger tourism player

Part 2 of the BCBusiness 2018 Tourism Status Report looks at indigenous tourism

It’s been just over 20 years since official efforts to ignite Indigenous tourism in B.C. started in earnest. In 1997, Indigenous Tourism BC (ItBC)—called the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia until this year—started out as a non-profit tasked with growing and promoting the industry. 

In its early days, the group had just two employees. Their job was far from simple: in some corners, the view was that Indigenous people would rather be left alone than persuaded or forced to share their culture and heritage with the world.

Although that notion holds true for some members of the province’s large Indigenous population—about 6 percent of British Columbians classified themselves as Aboriginal in the 2016 census—it isn’t a majority opinion. 

Today, ItBC has eight full-time staff, and Indigenous tourism in B.C. represents about $700 million in annual customer spending while employing some 7,000 people. The agency helps power about 200 businesses throughout the province, from cultural centres and wilderness tour outfits to hotels and resorts.  

“For some of those Indigenous communities, it’s about what part of that culture can they share and what part of the culture do they want to protect?” says Tracy Eyssens, CEO of ItBC. “We emphasize that it’s not about selling your culture or selling out. It’s really an opportunity for communities to come together and have a discussion.”

Trevor Cootes has seen that debate develop and change over time. An elected councillor for the Huu-ay-aht First Nation (HFN) on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island who also leads the band’s economic development file, he notes that HFN has been active in tourism for almost as long as ItBC. 

“One of the hidden gems of Vancouver Island is our campground, which has been around for five decades,” Cootes explains. “When we renovated it in 1998, we put more structure to it, put more manpower into it to better position ourselves in tourism and provide job opportunities, and now we’ve kind of reached that position of How do we invest and be a better role player in tourism?”

Cootes, who prides himself on staying connected with fellow HFN members, says they support such development efforts. He points to his nation’s 2016 purchase of 11 properties—including a pub, a restaurant, a general store and a couple of fishing lodges—in the community of Bamfield to encourage local tourism.

“Because we’re a treaty nation, with our laws and regulations we had to go to our people and get it approved,” Cootes recalls. “So we said, We’re buying this land for $4.5 million, partly for tourism, and what we heard from the people was that they wanted us to do that.

“There’s definitely been some bumps and bruises,” Cootes adds. “But [band members] got to a point last year where they participated in an event in the area and it rekindled energy, not only for Huu-ay-aht citizens but for the Bamfield area, which has been kind of deprived for the last 15 years.”

Eyssens expects tourism to play a big role in Indigenous relations. “We see it as an opportunity for recon­ciliation, but for communities it’s really up to them what that means,” she says. “Our opportunity is to amplify those Indigenous stories and change the story of Indigenous people in the province of B.C.”