Keith Henry certainly likes to practice what he preaches.
Henry, who is Métis and lives in Vancouver, is the president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). There’s no denying Henry’s workload has been compounded this year as ITAC has been dealing with the pandemic on several fronts. Many of its members are struggling since the tourism industry has been hurt especially hard.
During a webinar he hosted online this past Friday, Henry discussed the results of a new report released by Insignia Marketing Research Inc. ITAC commissioned the marketing company to do a study and file and report on the current state of the domestic travel market. The report was titled COVID-19 Driven Interest Assessment of Canada’s Domestic Market For Indigenous Tourism & Cultural Experiences.
The information compiled recommends Indigenous tourism businesses in the country need to alter their strategies and focus on attracting Canadian visitors. That’s because it could be a few years before American and other international travelers, who provided a substantial amount of business in the past, start returning with any degree of frequency.
Henry was well aware that Indigenous tourism businesses in the country need to be supported. And that’s why a couple of weeks before Friday’s webinar, a group of 13 ITAC employees showed their support to a pair of Nuu-chah-nulth businesses. While working on a second phase COVID-19 recovery plan, ITAC staff travelled to a pair of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation businesses to offer their support. During their two-day getaway, ITAC staff stayed at the Best Western Tin Wis Resort in Tofino. And they also visited Clayoquot Wild, which provides whale watching and wildlife tours.
ITAC employees did venture out to do some whale watching. And they also took part in some trail walking.
“We wanted to support some local businesses,” Henry said of the ITAC staff excursion. “We did a couple of fun tours. And it was really great to see the safety precautions they have in place now.”
ITAC employees were flown from Vancouver to Tofino via Iskwew Air. The company is owned by Teara Fraser, who is Métis and the first Indigenous woman to start her own airline in Canada.
“We’re trying to show our staff we need to support our businesses,” Henry added.
While conducting research for the ITAC report, Lydia Zorn, a co-founder and partner of Insignia Marketing Research, said focus groups were held in Vancouver, Yellowknife, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.
“So much of this research we did was purely to understand what impact has COVID-19 had on tourism these days,” Zorn said.
The research concluded that Canadians have changed their ways of thinking when it comes to their own travel. Because of the pandemic, many Canadians are keen to stay relatively close to home, usually within their own home province during their travels now.
Zorn believes ITAC members need to take advantage of this new way of thinking.
“Now is the time to dig in and really start thinking about how you can attack and really get into the domestic market,” Zorn said.
While many Indigenous tourism businesses are struggling because of the pandemic, Zorn believes they can start to recover with a new approach.
“I feel the world has changed and how people are thinking has changed,” she said. “And we’re at a very golden opportunity to be able to capture and embrace how people have changed. There’s been a paradigm shift. And because of that they’re looking at what you offer now. They feel like they can learn, they can benefit, they can have fun.”
Henry also realizes those in the Indigenous tourism industry have to make changes in order to survive and thrive.
“We know we’re going to have to rely on Canadians to stabilize revenues for our businesses over the next 12 to 24 to 36 months as we look to recover our sector,” he said.
This includes all of those from the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations who operate Indigenous tourism businesses.
In order to survive, however, Henry said these businesses must concentrate on attracting visitors from Canada. And in many cases they have to focus on providing appealing excursions to those relatively close.
“We’re trying to make sure the domestic market is aware of these businesses,” Henry said. “They have some great travel opportunities right there in Nuu-chah-nulth territories.”
Both Zorn and Henry agree that ITAC needs to act swiftly to get its members to concentrate on the Canadian domestic travel market. But they’d like to see financial support, both at the provincial and federal levels, to make that happen.
“A lot of our members don’t have deep marketing pockets,” Henry said. “ITAC has limited resources. And a lot of our Indigenous provincial/territorial organizations have limited resources.”
Henry is aware action is required though. And the sooner the better to assist those in the Indigenous tourism industry.
“The time is right,” he said. “But we’re going to need to move fast, pivot very fast. Canadians want to get away from home when it’s safe. And in parts of the country it is.”