Indigenous tourism operators troubled by federal budget allocation

Ramona Johnson of I-Hos Gallery in Courtenay BC
Ramona Johnson of I-Hos Gallery in Courtenay, B.C. Photo supplied.

When the Government of Canada released Budget 2021: A Recovery Plan for Jobs, Growth, and Resilience, their plan to complete the fight against COVID-19 and secure economic recovery for all Canadians, it left the Indigenous tourism sector reeling with shock.

Although the plan included investments in Indigenous tourism, Indigenous tourism operators and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) tell Douglas they were surprised and disappointed with how low the amount allotted directly to the Indigenous tourism sector is.

The federal budget included support for Indigenous entrepreneurs, which included $2.4 million to be allocated directly to ITAC. However, in 2019-20, ITAC relied upon a $20 million budget to fulfill all obligations. A drastic reduction in support means ITAC will not be able to provide the programs it envisioned for the recovery of the Indigenous tourism industry, as outlined in their 2020-24 Strategic Recovery Plan. They are worried about a full collapse of the sector. 

“Right now, Indigenous tourism businesses are severely struggling and the industry is at risk of collapsing without significant funding,” says Keith Henry, President and CEO of ITAC. “Indigenous tourism is a key economic driver for many Indigenous communities in Canada and this federal budget has largely missed the mark for the Indigenous tourism industry, leaving Indigenous tourism businesses behind. The federal government has consistently stated, including the finance minister yesterday, that there is no more important relationship than with Indigenous people so it is disappointing to see little direct support for the Indigenous tourism sector.” 

The impact of the lack of funding is being felt across the country, including Indigenous tourism operators on Vancouver Island.

“[This will] affect jobs within our Indigenous owned business. We have worked so hard in our Nations to be a part of the tourism economy and to now not be supported will create more poverty, depression, anxiety and business to close forever,” says Ramona Johnson of Courtenay’s I-HOS Gallery.

Indigenous people use tourism as a means to reconnect with and share their culture with the world and this is yet another challenge to preserving Indigenous languages, cultures and way of life. For them, the lack of support represents a missed opportunity for the federal government to reconcile with Indigenous people and to support some of the most in-demand tourist experiences in the country.

“We are the First People of the land, and who better to tell our story than our own people.  We have an understanding of how we want our culture shared  internationally, provincially  and locally. ITAC and other indigenous tourism industries has helped us grow because of the understanding in knowing the differences in our cultures and given us the respect needed,” says Ramona.

Through a detailed action plan, ITAC developed 32 key objectives to rehabilitate the industry and provide direct support to its members and to secure its network of provincial and territorial Indigenous tourism organizations as well as to stabilize ITAC’s national operations. ITAC had planned to allocate a $14 million budget in this 2021-22 Action Plan to support this recovery through expedited initiatives spearheaded by an Indigenous-led and coordinated approach. 

These initiatives were created to strengthen the development of the Indigenous tourism industry across Canada, including: business grants; domestic marketing campaigns; provincial and territorial support; research and sentiment analysis; as well as the implementation of a helpline for both mental health and business development support to access programs.

“We have already lost so much,” says Henry. “Prior to COVID-19, the Indigenous tourism sector celebrated its most successful year to date in 2019, with 1,900 Indigenous tourism businesses, 40,000 Indigenous tourism employees and a contribution of $1.9B in revenue to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). Today, the economic effects of the pandemic have reached catastrophic levels, with many businesses forced to shut their doors permanently and as a result, only an estimated 1,000 Indigenous-led tourism businesses and 15,284 employees remain part of the industry.”

Further Reading:

Indigenous tourism gets creative in rebounding from the pandemic

Island business leaders respond to 2020 budgets