Aboriginal culture, an eco-friendly tourist experience


When British Columbia hosts the Winter Olympics in 2010, the world will get a heavy dose of Canada’s aboriginal cultures.

Indeed, even the 2010 icon is the Inuit inukshuk, symbolizing direction or nourishment – a symbol that has already had its share of criticism and comment regarding its use by the 2010 Games.

However, many in the travel industry hope that aboriginal tourism initiatives are already heading in a positive direction – nourished by increased recognition of the uniqueness of Canada’s aboriginal cultures, and by aboriginal communities intent on creating tourism that educates, promotes and is economically viable.

It isn’t easy, say those who have helped create such ventures but the rewards are high, particularly for communities with high unemployment and low morale.

In many cases, aboriginals are uniquely positioned to create ecotourism and culture tourism opportunities, in part because of their acknowledged respect for and connection to environmental sustainability and their rich culture.

One of Canada’s most noted ecotourism initiatives is the Cree Village Ecolodge in Moose Factory, Ont., which has earned accolades for its beauty and commitment to sustainability.

Cree Village (currently under renovation) has composting toilets, organic beds and bedding, a gourmet menu featuring trout and buffalo, and a well-planned and energy-efficient design. But more than that, it pays homage to Cree tradition, from building style and materials to its culture-based programs and tours.

Its success can be largely linked to the commitment of the community to its principles.

“There’s so much potential,” for aboriginal tourism, says Sonya Graci, an assistant professor with the Ted Rogers School of Hosptiality and Tourism Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

“The first key to a successful venture is passion, which most aboriginal people already have when it comes to sharing their culture,” says Patrick Maher, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management Program. “The second is funding.”

And, all too often, there lies the rub. Many entrepreneurs have trouble getting funding through banks, primarily because of issues relating to not having home equity because they are on reserve land, says Maher.

“The economic potential is extremely strong … but if government isn’t involved and there’s no funding, it’s doomed to fail,” Graci says, adding that it’s a shame Canada doesn’t promote such a rich cultural heritage.

With band council support considered another key factor – and band councils changing every two years – there’s considerable political instability, making getting a venture off the ground tough.

Another challenge, says Harvey Lemelin, an associate professor at Lakehead University’s School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism, is that tourism has been “sold” to aboriginal communities as the solution to their problems.

It’s not, he says, pointing to the industry’s notoriously low wages, seasonal and climate-based availability and its reliance on external forces, such as the economy.

But he believes it is a key part of a comprehensive economic strategy that could create valuable opportunities for many First Nations communities.

“Tourism should be seen as complementary,” he says, noting that many communities look at casinos, hunting, mining and forestry before, finally, considering tourism.

To add another hurdle, travellers generally don’t seek out aboriginal tourism ventures. While the Canadian Aboriginal Festival’s annual Pow-Wow at the Ted Rogers Centre in Toronto (this year from Nov. 28-30) gives some their first glimpse of aboriginal culture, there remains a distinct lack of appreciation and respect for First Nations culture, which why Maher thinks aboriginal tourism is so important.

“For at least a few generations in Canada, there is complete misunderstanding of aboriginal peoples and culture,” he says. “Misguided thoughts have gone from grandparent to parent to child, and without ever meeting aboriginal peoples in person, stereotypes abound.”

While there remains the danger of commoditizing aboriginal culture – as with any marginal or historically oppressed people – Maher believes if that “fine balance” is achieved, then “people realize that there is both traditional aboriginal culture and contemporary aboriginal culture. Tourists should not expect or be sold an experience whereby they think aboriginal peoples live in their traditional dress/homes all the time these days – that is part of a tradition.”

Is this a travel opportunity whose time has come? Spurred by an environmental movement that is, sometimes grudgingly acknowledging that perhaps aboriginals had the right idea all along, consumers are seeking out travel experiences that support environmental principles.

European and Asian tourists are considered a prime market for aboriginal tourism and provincial governments are exploring ways to promote it. Luckily for Canadians, a rich cultural experience exists right here at home.