Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada have long been marginalized and exploited in large part because their cultures and traditions were different and weren’t accepted by colonial settlers. But in 2018, those differences and unique cultures are exactly what’s fueling the growth of indigenous tourism around the world for travelers looking to make deeper connections with the places they visit.

The reconciliation process between tribal communities and the Canadian government, for example, is still ongoing, and there is plenty of untapped potential for indigenous tourism offerings. Indigenous communities include Native Americans in the U.S. and First Nation in Canada.

A number of factors, including a long history of discrimination, has hurt these communities economically over the years, but some of that is changing, said Candace Campo, owner of Vancouver-based Talaysay Tours, an indigenous tour company. “Some of our communities are thriving and others are struggling,” she said. “Alcohol and the opioid epidemic are hitting the communities.”

For tribes and indigenous tourism businesses, it’s all about reconciliation, said Paula Amos, director of partnerships and corporate initiatives at Indigenous Tourism BC, a membership-based organization that markets indigenous tourism experiences in British Columbia.

“There were 94 reconciliation recommendations put forth and the government has endorsed these,” said Amos. “A lot of them revolve around building economies and our connection to the land. We’re operating in that kind of environment here in British Columbia. There’s a will with indigenous and non-indigenous people to collaborate and get to a better understanding.”

Tribal communities increasingly want to welcome tourists to their territories, said Amos, as indigenous tourism experiences bookings are on the rise.

Amos and other tourism officials said experiencing the land and wellness are top drivers for why tourists want to visit tribal communities. As wellness continues to grow as a hook for travel, it’s not surprising that travelers want to visit tribal communities to learn about their ancient medicinal and wellness practices.

“Yes, we’ve had a historical past that wasn’t always favorable and we point out some of that history in some of our walking tours,” said Campo. “Our talking trees tour focuses on how our people have utilized the land for food, medicine, and technology. We try to invite and encourage our guests and local community members to see the land as our shared community.”

Indigenous tourism Growth

Native communities are seeing some new opportunities in the U.S. Two Native American women, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month, making history as the first two Native American women to win election to Congress.

Recent bestsellers including “Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann, and “There There” by Tommy Orange have also introduced readers to largely unknown or misunderstood narratives about Native Americans.

Indigenous Tourism BC and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association’s work is two-pronged – they need to increase awareness for indigenous tourism in key markets and convince indigenous populations that they should work in tourism.

Tourism officials feel they’ve only penetrated a fraction of their top markets and are educating visitors on the range of experiences they can have. “It’s always an educational process but we’re lessening that gap a little bit each year,” said Campo. “We’re working with our visitors to let them know that these are active communities.”

Indigenous tourism businesses in destinations like British Columbia, which has an indigenous population of more than 200,000, have consistently seen double-digit growth in indigenous tourism bookings in the past few years.

The number of indigenous tourism businesses in the province grew 33 percent from 2014 to 2017 to about 400, compared to the 19,000 overall tourism businesses in British Columbia.

“We know that 100 of those businesses are all pretty much at capacity which is a good problem to have,” said Amos. “Our businesses range from accommodations to arts and culture and cuisine. We even have indigenous-owned wineries.”

The U.S. Congress passed the Native American Tourism and Visitor Improving Act in 2016 which requires federal agencies such as the Departments of Commerce and the Interior to include tribes in tourism planning processes. The New Mexico-based American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, which markets indigenous tourism in the United States, will receive funding through the act to bring the federal agencies and tribes together to determine how to market tribal destinations and experiences.

The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association could receive Native Act funding by January, said Camille Ferguson, the association’s executive director. “The Native Act and our work isn’t just about economic development for Indian Country but also our ability to perpetuate Native American cultures through tourism,” she said. “It’s not about preserving, we’re not in a museum. It’s about perpetuating our culture.”

Why Indigenous Tourism is Unique

Destinations love to say their people and their hospitality and traditions are what help set places apart from competitors. Indigenous populations play well to that trend and have thousands of years worth of history with their lands and a deep understanding of a destination’s significance.

Tribes are being encouraged to tell their stories in their own ways, said Ferguson. “You can do a natural history walking tour anywhere,” she said. “But if you want to do a cultural and natural history walking tour, that’s where our members come in. We wouldn’t just say ‘there’s an alder tree,’ we would also talk about its medicinal uses. Everything has a meaning, even the rocks.”

Indigenous communities’ tradition of oral history is layered into experiences, said Amos. “An example of an indigenous tourism experience could be going on a wildlife viewing like a whale watch,” said Amos. “But what’s the difference? Visitors will learn about the indigenous connection to that wildlife and hear stories about that.”

Talaysay Tours’ Campo said it’s important for her company to know its customers by name and to connect with them before their tours. She said Airbnb Experiences, which launched in 2016, is one platform the company has recently benefited from.

“We find that Airbnb’s values and their guests’ values really align with us,” said Campo. “The creative allows the operator and the guest to have interaction and there’s a really good interface for that and that’s really important for us as an indigenous tour company.”

Photo Credit: Indigenous tourism is on the rise around the world. Pictured is a performer at the Indigenous Cultural Festival in Victoria, British Columbia. Melody Charlie / Indigenous Tourism BC