Haida Cultural Centre, one of many attractions for tourists in British Columbia.

Haida Cultural Centre, one of many attractions for tourists in British Columbia.

Cutting-Edge Tourism: Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia Educates and Preserves

Eight major cultural centers, numerous art galleries, museums, canoe voyages, wineries, hotels, golf courses and—yes—even casinos.

All are ample evidence that First Nations’ art, culture and businesses are flourishing in British Columbia. This success is due in large part to the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (ATABC), a nonprofit, proactive organization founded in 1996.

Native tourism in British Columbia has been booming. In 2006, the tourist sector earned a total of $20 million; by 2011, total annual income had more than doubled, to $42 million, among 60 businesses. This is considerably greater than in other Canadian provinces.

“While the economy in general is struggling, we are seeing healthy growth,” said Keith Henry, ATABC’s chief executive officer. “We have 60 [member companies], but there are another 240 potential businesses located in every corner of the province that we are encouraging. We are fortunate that British Columbia has one of the richest Native cultures in the world, with incredible diversity.”

The goal of ATABC is straightforward: to promote Native culture and help Native tourism businesses get started and then succeed. It does so by offering workshops and training at three levels. First, the group builds awareness that Native communities have something special to offer and encourages them to seek out tourism business opportunities.

“We are working with our people because there has not been a good history,” Henry said. “Sometimes Native communities are fearful of sharing too much of their culture.”

Skedans Haida Gwaii

Skedans Haida Gwaii (Photo by Hans Tammemagi)

Then, once potential businesses and entrepreneurs have been identified, ATABC helps them design business plans, acquire financing and manage the funds. Finally, when the businesses are up and running, the association helps in preparing brochures, advertising, attending trade shows, building and maintaining company websites and raising public awareness of what is available.

“I feel strongly that [ATABC] is not just at the forefront in Canada in promoting Native tourism, but we are also recognized as a leader internationally,” Henry said. But challenges remain. “There is still a reluctance by the largest tour operators. They worry that Natives will not deliver, or will not be reliable. An important part of our mission is to develop that confidence, to demonstrate that we are world class.”

A voluntary cultural-authenticity program launched in 2010 allows certified companies to place a logo on advertising and products. To qualify, a business must meet criteria for operating standards, customer service and Native content.

ATABC showed its leadership role in March when it hosted the first national aboriginal tourism conference in Canada, with more than 180 participants. Other successes include a winning marketing campaign during the 2010 Winter Olympics and the establishment of the Klahowya Village in Stanley Park, in downtown Vancouver.

“Aboriginal tourism helps create sustainable and meaningful employment for Native communities,” said Henry, “and provides the impetus for elders to pass down culture, history and tradition to youth.”

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