By Brian Morton, Vancouver Sun June 22, 2011
Dennis Thomas knows the importance of aboriginal cultural tourism.
As project director of North Vancouver-based Takaya Tours, a Tsleil-Waututh Nation ecotourism venture that takes tourists and school groups on journeys in 12-passenger, 7.6-metre ocean-going canoes or kayaks to sites on Indian Arm, he believes businesses such as Takaya are essential not only for providing jobs but for increasing awareness of aboriginal culture.
“It [aboriginal tourism] is the fastest growing tourism sector in B.C., possibly Canada, and I’m glad to be part of it,” Thomas said in an interview. “We probably have 45 tours booked over the next couple of months. There’s five this week.
“One tour today is from Ohio. Next week, we have a couple from Texas, another [couple] from New Zealand, and a group from Paris – they’ll all be in one canoe.”
Takaya Tours is one of approximately 200 aboriginal tourism businesses in B.C. that are thriving despite an economic recession that hit the tourism industry hard.
Nearly one-quarter of them were established between 2006 and 2010, exceeding expectations in job creation and economic impact and nearly doubling the number of visitors to aboriginal cultural attractions, according to a report released this week.
The AtBC Blueprint Strategy: Tourism Performance Review 2006-2010 summarizes the results of a partnership between the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC (AtBC), the province of B.C. and the government of Canada, a partnership designed to strengthen the aboriginal tourism sector as an economic driver.
Among the report’s conclusions:
. About 3.7 million tourists experienced some form of aboriginal cultural tourism in 2010, almost double the number from 2006.
. An estimated 2,226 full-time equivalent jobs were generated by aboriginal businesses in 2010, a 32-per-cent increase from 2006.
. Aboriginal tourism revenues reached $40 million in 2010, double that of 2006.
Tourist interest in various aspects of aboriginal culture is strong in most of Canada’s key international markets, the report found, with interest highest among potential Chinese travellers and lowest among Americans.
“During the period 2006 to 2010, the overall incidence of travelers in B.C. experiencing aboriginal tourism attractions/products/services increased from about 13 per cent to an estimated 22 per cent,” the report said.
“Given the unprecedented media exposure generated about aboriginal cultures in B.C. during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, and the accelerated levels of aboriginal tourism marketing undertaken by AtBC and its partners during the ramp up to the Games, it is likely that current incidence levels will remain as high if not higher than those estimated for 2010.”
By 2012, about 3.9 million visitors to B.C. are expected to include aboriginal cultural tourism experiences in their itineraries and spend about $43 million, the report said.
Meanwhile, National Aboriginal Awareness Day was celebrated in Stanley Park Tuesday with the season’s opening of the Klahowya Village and Spirit Catcher Train.
The aboriginal village, one of the park’s newest tourist attractions, drew thousands of visitors last year and showcases performers, carvers and artisans, storytelling, traditional aboriginal food and the themed railroad.
Keith Henry, CEO of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C., said in an interview that the sector’s growth benefits all British Columbians, not just the aboriginal community, as entrepreneurs and businesses partner with the larger tourism industry.
“There’s lots of potential product development [and] we’re now packaging between aboriginal businesses and non-aboriginal businesses.”
Henry said that while much of their business is from overseas tourists, “surprisingly, our largest market is British Columbians and Canadians, people in our own backyard.”
Henry, who was at Tuesday’s opening of the Klahowya Village, said Germans are the largest foreign market for aboriginal businesses, but that “we’re really looking to China. It’s a huge opportunity for us.”
Thomas said Takaya has historically attracted a lot of German and British tourists and that the Chinese market is on the horizon.
But Thomas believes there’s tremendous growth in the education sector. “There’s tons of schools that don’t do these tours [and] I want to expand on that.”