Indigenous Tourism: Takeaways for Northern Ontario

January 16, 2017 - Here’s a puzzle: 20 percent of Indigenous “tourism businesses…are located in… British Columbia,” which attracts “one in four visitors.” At the same time, Ontario has 31 percent of all Indigenous tourism businesses in Canada, yet two percent of visitors from their “key markets…experienced [Indigenous] culture” in 2012. This difference means that Northern Ontario’s Indigenous tourism industry has plenty of room to grow. Since British Columbia enjoys a higher demand for this type of tourism, it can offer several best practices to create a more dynamic Indigenous tourism sector in the North. These lessons can provide positive spillovers such as increased revenue, a larger and more diverse economy, and stronger social ties amongst communities and First Nations.[1]

Indigenous “cultural tourism” is when a visitor participates in authentic cultural traditions that engender a sense of respect to unique Indigenous customs. It also refers to “tourism businesses [that are] majority owned…by First Nations, Métis or Inuit peoples that can demonstrate a connection…to the local Aboriginal community and traditional territory where the operation resides.” In this regard, British Columbia is an industry leader.  Since the 1990s, this sector has seen incredible growth in this province through the help of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (ATBC). As well, since 2006 this sector has more than doubled its revenue and in 2011, produced $12 million in “tax revenue” for the province.

Northern Ontario’s Indigenous tourism industry on the other hand, developed a bit differently. In 2000 the Northern Ontario Native Tourism Association (NONTA), which helped to support various First Nations groups through the 1990s, was shut down due to funding issues. It was only in 2014 that the Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO) association was created, which helps Indigenous tourism business through marketing, skills and “product development”, and “cultural authenticity” initiatives.[2] In addition, the ITO recently held a second annual business conference, which discussed these various initiatives in relation to “economic development” and “visitor experience.”

The ITO is complemented by Tourism Northern Ontario (TNO), which was created in 2009 to handle the region’s tourism activities. While there is no overarching Indigenous tourism association for Northern Ontario, the TNO assists well-known businesses such as the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT) on Manitoulin Island.[3] Despite these associations and the various initiatives they are developing, the growth of Northern Ontario’s Indigenous tourism sector is still restricted due to issues such as weak partnerships.[4]

Given these differences there are two particularly important practices that Northern Ontario could take from British Columbia to develop this sector further. The first is partnerships. According to the TNO, Region 13, which is the largest tourism region in Northern Ontario, tends to be “fragmented” when it comes to Indigenous tourism.[5] In fact, in Region 13A alone, 70 percent of Indigenous tourism businesses stated that there is very “little…support for partnership opportunities.”[6] As a result, Northern Ontario should do more to build partnerships with not only local and tourism businesses, but with the provincial government as well.

According to a recent report by the ATBC, “strengthen[ing] partnerships” is important because these relationships create positive benefits for the tourism industry.. These partnerships can include “joint…marketing”, “skills training”, and “training programs”, to name a few.[7] Since training programs have been noted to be lacking in Ontario, Northern Ontario’s Indigenous tourism industry could benefit, both socially and economically, from the creation of partnerships across the board.[8]

Marketing is also critical, and it is one of the foundational pillars of British Columbia’s thriving Indigenous tourism industry. Conversely, this is an area that Northern Ontario has yet to fully develop. This weakness was noted in a report by the Great Spirit Circle Trail and others in 2011, which stated that 69.5 percent of Indigenous businesses felt they receive very little support when it comes to “cooperative marketing and branding initiatives.” In comparison, British Columbia emphasizes  intensive online and “print marketing” strategies that makes use of its partnerships and engages prospective clients with online marketing contests and social media.

So what is the takeaway for Northern Ontario? First and foremost, all sorts of marketing outlets should be utilized both online and off. Second, partnerships are invaluable when it comes to marketing. If Northern Ontario was able to deepen its relationships with various organizations, it could help attract not only individuals in Northern Ontario, but households beyond the region. Such a result would strengthen the northern economy and create stronger connections with Indigenous businesses.

It is very evident that there is a stark difference between the status of the Indigenous tourism industry in British Columbia and Northern Ontario. Now, this is not to say that Northern Ontario isn’t making solid efforts. In fact, over the past few years, Northern Ontario  has analyzed various provincial models, including British Columbia’s, and have been developing  projects such as the “Aboriginal Tourism Product Development and Marketing Initiative” between TNO and GSCT.[9] Clearly, Northern Ontario recognizes these strategies will have a positive impact and are striving to apply them. This will help not only Northern Ontario’s Indigenous tourism sector to continue to grow, but will provide economic and social benefits such as “economic diversification” and forging stronger relationships.[10]

[1] Rhonda L.P. Koster and Raynald Harvey Lemelin, “The Forgotten Industry in the Forgotten North: Tourism Developments in Northern Ontario,” in Governance in Northern Ontario: Economic Development and Policy Making, edited by Charles Conteh and Bob Segsworth, (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 164.

[2] Tourism Northern Ontario and the Great Spirit Circle Trail Inc, 2014 Aboriginal Tourism Product Development & Marketing Initiative Region 13A (Tourism Northern Ontario and Great Spirit Circle Trail Inc., 2014), 6.  

[3] Ibid TNO and GSCT, 4, 18.

[4] Ibid TNO and GSCT, 3.  

[5] Ibid TNO and GSCT, 20.

[6] Ibid TNO and GSCT, 44.

[7] The Great Spirit Circle Trail, Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture, FedNor, and CES, Aboriginal Tourism Ontario Strategy: Moving Forward in 4 Directions, (The Great Spirit Circle Trail, Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture, FedNor and CES, 2011), 6; Raynald Harvey Lemelin, Rhonda Koster, and Nicholina Youroukos, “Tangible and Intangible Indicators of Successful Aboriginal Tourism Initiatives: A Case Study of Two Successful Aboriginal Tourism Lodges in Northern Canada,” Tourism Management 47 (2015): 324, accessed May 15, 2016, DOI: 10.1016/j.tourman.2014.10.011.

[8] GSCT et al, 14.

[9] TNO and GSCT, 3, 22-23.  

[10] Koster and Lemelin, 164.

Rachel Beals is a policy intern at Northern Policy Institute. 

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1 Reader Comments

  • Indigenous Tourism

    Posted By Eric Key on 1/27/2017 4:20:31 PM

    It is good to see that efforts are being made, but it is important to realize that this is a very long term project, and there will not be any magic bullets.

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