Aboriginal Tourism: The Challenges, Opportunities and Future

Aboriginal tourism has seen an enormous boost in the last eight years. More and more travellers are looking to make a cultural connection with British Columbia beyond dining out in Yaletown, skiing in Whistler or surfing in Tofino. Today, there are more than 200 Aboriginal tourism businesses in BC, an 85 per cent increase over 2006.

“The Aboriginal tourism landscape has changed faster than any section I have ever witnessed,” comments Keith Henry, CEO of Aboriginal Tourism BC. “Revenues in BC will reach over $50 million this year alone,” he estimates. By 2017, that number is expected to increase to $68 million. With numbers on the rise, there is a lot of opportunity for Aboriginal entrepreneurs.

Developing the Aboriginal Tourism Industry

Developing this industry has not been a simple one. Much work has been invested to convince the Aboriginal communities to embrace tourism as an opportunity to showcase who they are, while making money and not abusing the land.

But that work is starting to pay off as more and more Aboriginal entrepreneurs see the benefits, such inviting people to celebrate art, culture and heritage.

Support for the Aboriginal Community

As the Aboriginal Tourism industry develops and grows, so do the number of organizations offering help to Aboriginal Entrepreneurs.

The Globe and Mail reported in May that the Royal Bank of Canada have created two initiatives at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. The first, to support startups and social ventures in BC’s First Nations communities. The second, to aid Aboriginal undergraduate and graduate students to pursue entrepreneurship as a career.

The Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia also set up a similar program called the Ch’nook Initiative, which offers a full range of business education opportunities, including the Ch’nook Scholars Program and the Aboriginal Management Program.

In 2011, Keith Henry helped create BC Métis Federation, a non-profit association. One of their projects has been to establish a business directory to help businesses identify and secure procurement opportunities for Métis owned and operated businesses.

Misconceptions about Aboriginal Businesses

“One of the largest misconceptions about Aboriginal businesses is their access to grants,” Keith Henry comments. “Although there are many loan and funding programs available to Aboriginals, similar to any other business, the criteria can be narrow and the application process daunting. This misconception means that Aboriginal families are often approached with business ideas to buy, thinking they have unlimited access to funds, and pressured to making unreasonable commitments or are harassed by those who do not believe them.”

The second misconception that people have about Aboriginal businesses, according to Keith Henry, is the notion that they do not pay taxes. ”While true of some small entrepreneurs who trade within the reserve, for any businesses that provides services or products off reserve they pay like everyone else,” says Keith Henry. “In Canada there are approximately 1,500 Aboriginal tourism businesses, who pay about $141 million in taxes annually. A significant contribution that Canadians are unaware of.”

The Influence of the BC Treaty Negotiations

The BC treaty negotiations are arguably the most complex set of negotiations that Canada has ever undertaken.

Open to all BC First Nations, there are currently has 60 First Nations at 49 sets of negotiations. Their purpose is to identify, define and implement the rights and obligations, including existing and future interests in land, sea and resources, structures and authorities of government, regulatory processes, amending processes, dispute resolution, financial compensation and fiscal relations.

When asked how the negotiations affect the Aboriginal business landscape, Keith replies that he sees the process as another key tool to supporting business certainty for future partners. After all the treaty process focuses on the future economic sustainability of these communities. That certainty will increase the confidence of non-Aboriginal partners who are looking to invest, partner and support the communities.

National Aboriginal Day

On June 21, 2015, BC will celebrate National Aboriginal Day, to celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
There are a number of events happening around the province, check out the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website for more information.