Indigenous tourism was one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors in BC with over $700 million being spent on it every year. Then COVID-19 hit.
“We were growing at a great pace and we were definitely starting to be a part of the tourism industry as a whole,” said Frank Antoine of Indigenous Tourism BC.
Indigenous operators across Vancouver Island were expecting big things in 2020.
“This would have been a bumper year for us, absolutely our best year to date,” said Paul Cox, general manager of the Kwa’lilas Hotel in Port Hardy.
The Kwa’lilas Hotel opened in 2016 after the Gwa’sala and ‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations purchased the former Port Hardy Inn and transformed it into a First Nations destination hotel.
The majority of the summer tourism business for the hotel comes from England, The Netherlands and Germany.
“And this is where we’ve seen a real reach out from European operators to ask us for more in-depth Indigenous tourism packages,” added Cox.
He says the COVID-19 slowdown has given them time to create more Indigenous experiences for tourists beginning in 2021.
But this year there will be no international tourists, which is also unfortunate for First Nation-owned Sea Wolf Adventures down the road in Port McNeill, which offers whale and bear watching with a mix of Indigenous history.
Up to 90 per cent of its business is European.
“So really we’re trying to promote our local people to come up from Victoria, the mainland all to come up to the north island and look at all our wildlife we have in this wonderful area,” said Stephen Alfred of Sea Wolf Adventures.
He says all tourism operators are counting on “staycations” to help them with the bottom line this summer.
“That is the big one we’re pushing right now. We really need people to come up to the north Island and enjoy it.”
June is National Indigenous History month and Island operators are now hoping Canadians will fill the gap and want to mix their vacation with First Nations history as much Europeans do
“And tourism has given us a platform where we can educate and we can definitely share who we are specifically and where we come from from a specific part of the country that we live in,” added Antoine.
Indigenous operators say they are expecting a major rebound in 2021.