Skift Take

The pandemic has spurred an over-abundance of initiatives across the travel industry, but this one certainly ranks among the most promising to date.

Indigenous tourism had been growing exponentially pre-pandemic, increasing by 180 percent between 2007-2017 in the U.S., while in Canada it was outpacing overall tourism growth by nearly 24 percent.  The pandemic predictably stunted that growth, but it also disproportionately impacted the sector and Native communities and small businesses in North and South America.

But the ongoing consumer interest in indigenous tourism won’t disappear as more travelers continue to seek the outdoors and rural experiences, and the challenges, while compounded, have encouraged a rapprochement over the past 18 months among Indigenous tourism leaders and travel’s public and private sector.  

It’s led to the creation announced on Monday of a first-of-its-kind group called the Indigenous Tourism Collaborative of the Americas — a network of nearly 100 indigenous leaders and industry players located across the Western hemisphere, from the U.S. to Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America. They are committing to supporting the recovery and the future sustainable growth of indigenous tourism across the western hemisphere. 

What makes this collaboration particularly significant is that it is endorsed by and partly funded by the U.S. Department of Interior through its Office of Indian Economic Development.

“This unique collaboration of government, industry, academia and community provides avenues for each member to do what they do best to create opportunity, capacity, economic viability and sustainability in indienous tourism, advised by indigenous leaders themselves,” said Kathryn Isom-Clause, deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs for policy and economic development at U.S. Department of the Interior, in a pre-launch announcement during the 25th Congress of the Organization of American States. “I cannot emphasize enough the significance of an indigenous led initiative reaching out to tourism industry leaders and having those industry leaders overwhelmingly respond positively.”

Funding for the group comes through an act of Congress in 2016, which has also provided recent grants for indigenous tourism capacity initiatives led by the George Washington University Institute of International Tourism Studies, including, among others, the creation of the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance to position five federally recognized Native American Tribal Nations in North Dakota as a tour operator.

“As the world works to recover from the pandemic, tourists are beginning to explore new places, revisit those they know well, and seek inspiration in new connections — with people, in nature, and with cultures,” said Seleni Matus, executive director of the international institute of tourism studies at George Washington University, which is also part of the collaborative’s steering committee. “Driven by Indigenous leadership and industry champions, the Indigenous Tourism Collaborative of the Americas is working to prepare Indigenous communities for that future.”

The collaborative, which is voluntary, is made up of two groups of advisors; one gathers Indigenous tourism leaders, Indigenous community representatives, entrepreneurs and groups, while the other is made up of tourism industry leaders from the private sector, government agencies, destination marketing organizations, academia, and NGOs. The two groups are split among three priority action teams: Indigenous tourism recovery, building capacity, and respect and inclusion in government and industry planning and development.

Each of these action teams is led by an indigenous leader, and supported by an industry champion. The collective will also soon release a website with resources and tools, that will double as a communication platform for all stakeholders participating in the collective across the Americas. 

Indigenous tourism leaders welcomed the creation of the collaborative at the official launch event on Monday, reiterating the important role that indigenous tourism plays in the travel industry chain in light of both an increasingly conscious minded traveler as well as a world facing mounting climate change crises and in need of indigenous led solutions for the preservation of biodiversity and communities. 

“We know from our own research we’ve known for years, the visitors we have in Canada that love indigenous tourism will love indigenous tourism in other countries,” said Keith Henry, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). “This is a trend for the future whether the non-Indigenous tourism industry realizes this or not, so I think it’s an important time for us to show leadership, to show that we can organize and have an indigenous led global approach to everything we do and tourism.”

Sherry Rupert, CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) preferred to emphasize the opportunity to play a role in transforming the industry’s approach to tribe led tourism.

“I’m sure you would agree that when I say our Native American, First Nations, Metis, Intuit, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and native pueblos of South America are already too frequently lumped into one master group loosely defined as Indigenous,” Rupert said. “While I appreciate the ideals of creating a collaborative community, I’m especially excited about networking with the group’s leadership to better define ways we can all celebrate our uniqueness.”

A lack of tourism data specific to its communities plays a big part in the “lumping” phenomenon and this collaborative platform allowing easier exchange of information may help other communities achieve moving forward.

“One of the things we’ve learned through this pandemic — our industry needs indigenous led research, and what we do in Canada here with our organization, we’re consistently monitoring the economic and sort of impacts of the pandemic because policymakers and often government partners, we get lumped in with macroeconomics and we’re seeing a very different picture for indigenous tourism so part of what we’ve been doing is telling the story,” ITAC’s Henry said.

Rupert agreed, nothing that even for capacity building for Indigenous groups, it’s not a one size fits all solution, each tribe and native community has different needs related to their own growth and that AIANTA has historically been challenged by lack of tourism data specific to tourism communities.

“AIANTA is now working with a variety of data providers who specialize in tourism data to build a variety of benchmark metrics across the industry, so we have a better idea of what’s really happening,” said Rupert. “We’ll release the first research during our Annual American Indian Tourism Conference in just two weeks and we expect it to serve as a baseline to identify additional gaps in data collection, which will help us define more accurate, access to capacity growth.”

For Myrna Cunningham, former president of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, an Indigenous-led tourism effort that unites over 100 leaders and the industry’s diverse sectors including government comes at a critical time for the western hemisphere in finding “community based solutions” to tourism’s and the planet’s sustainable future.

“We are protecting our resources that we inherited from our ancestors, for the future generations, that’s why we need to see this indigenous tourism as an option where these resources can be protected, and preserved,” said Cunningham. “That’s what we offer as a indigenous peoples — we don’t just offer measures just for us, we offer measures for the whole humankind.”

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Photo credit: The new Indigenous Tourism Collaborative of the Americas brings together indigenous and industry leaders across all sectors. Pamela Huber / Unsplash

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