Indigenous Tourism Hitting New Strides in Saskatchewan: An Interview with Christian Boyle

By Heather Exner-Pirot

This month, SFNEDN talks to Christian Boyle, owner of Glyph Creative Strategy, about the budding Indigenous tourism in Saskatchewan.

HEP: How did you first get involved in the tourism industry?

CB: My background is in community and economic development, but I’ve mainly focused on the tourism industry. My love of tourism comes from being a tourist, specifically on wilderness-guided expeditions. Early in my career, I looked for program options in Saskatchewan that would complement my interest in the tourism industry, and took a recreation management diploma from what was then known as SIAST. It focused on the community development aspects of tourism. I loved the education I received there. After I got my diploma and I got a job as an Economic Development Officer in the Watrous region. Tourism was a big component of my job, with Manitou Beach in the area. I learned the importance of developing the proper infrastructure to sustain a tourism industry.

 

HEP: How would you describe sustainable tourism?

CB: Sustainable tourism comes from consent and education from a community perspective. No matter where a tourism operation is located, there is a population base that supports it. That base needs to understand that when you bring in tourists it changes the optics and make-up of your community. You need to do the work with the community beforehand to understand the scope and magnitude of that change, and what opportunities it will bring. This is especially important in Indigenous tourism, because so much of it is sharing a particular culture.

Other aspects of sustainability relate to developing the land and infrastructure to support the industry, and the training that needs to be done alongside that. This needs to be at the outset – it can’t be done half-way after a business is set up.

An example I like to use is Tofino, on Vancouver Island. In 2009/10 it got so overloaded with tourists that the municipal water supply was overtaxed, and they had to put a moratorium on tourist water use. Because the planning was not done beforehand, many small businesses lost a whole season of work and had to shut down.

 

HEP: How is Indigenous tourism different than ‘mainstream’ tourism?

CB: Indigenous tourism can mean a lot of things. It could be as simple as a tourism business that is owned by an Indigenous operator. In regard to experiential tourism however, it’s developing those experiences that leverage the cultural knowledge of the community – sharing its culture, traditions and experiences with outsiders. But doing it in a respectful fashion that also promotes an education about the culture. You need to be respectful of the label, but essentially, it’s a sharing of cultural experiences with the consent of the community.

 

HEP: What is the state of Indigenous tourism in Saskatchewan and Canada?

CB: In Saskatchewan, Indigenous tourism has long been neglected and overlooked. We have real challenges putting our “brand” out to the world; we’ve been seen as flyover country. As much as 80% of our tourism market comes from within the province. So only 20% of tourists are coming from out of province and even that is disproportionately Alberta. Less than 5% is international visits.

Our province is beautiful but we’ve always had the challenge of how to present ourselves to the world. Why should people come here? I think the most overlooked thing is the sheer amount of unique Indigenous nations that have called this land home since time immemorial. We have 70 First Nations, encompassing five different linguistic groups, as well as the Métis Nation. The culture is so rich. But we have never really worked with Indigenous communities to develop a product and marketing supports to get active in the tourism industry. Some Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs have done good work for example in setting up fishing lodges. But for export-oriented experiential tourism we really only have Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

 

HEP: What kinds of opportunities do you see to grow the Indigenous tourism industry in the province?

CB: The whole industry is becoming more feasible now because Indigenous tourism is on the rise globally. There is a market getting increasingly interested in it – consumers looking for authentic experiences. The whole industry is seeing a move from the sightseeing that boomers enjoy, to a younger audience looking to have experiences – and then wanting to document that and social share and Instagram it. Indigenous tourism is well-suited to this demand because so much of the culture is about closeness to the land. That translates well into the experiential.

So, the market is telling us there is demand. Tour operators are starting to add Indigenous experiences as value-adds in their tours. Crucially, the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) has been doing good work, partnering with Destination Canada to raise the sector’s profile across the globe, and going to Europe and Asia to showcase the experiences with tour operators.

 

HEP: There are rumours that some big investments are occurring in the provincial Indigenous tourism industry. Can you talk a bit about those?

CB: Something is coming to market that hasn’t been present in Saskatchewan before: an Indigenous-owned hotel property that caters to a higher-end market.  Dakota Dunes is opening up a hotel and construction will start in 2018. That Hotel will be part of an overall package: golf, casino, hotel and resort opportunities such as horseback riding, use of the river, and cultural experiences.

Indigenous tourism in the province has always had a chicken and egg problem. Now we will have something we can develop product around. Whitecap did a scan of what was around and decided there was no sense competing with Wanuskewin, they have a high quality product, so now they are working as partners – Wanuskewin providing experiences at Whitecap and vice versa.

And then Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation started putting together a unique cultural experience. All of these we saw as complementary, and easily connected transportation-wise. So we partnered together to create a package that can be taken to export markets. We plan to brand it as an “Indigenous tourism corridor”. Western Diversification has encouraged and supported us to apply for infrastructure funding, and Indigenous Services Canada has also lent incredible support to Beardy’s and to the concept. The province is providing in-kind training through Tourism Saskatchewan. So we now have a product that is gaining support from all levels of government. It’s the first export-ready Indigenous tourism package product in Saskatchewan. And it will help create a model that opens up opportunities for others to build and learn from.

 

HEP: What are some of the risks associated with Indigenous tourism?

CB: There are the same risks you get with any type of tourism business.

The tourism market in Saskatchewan is almost entirely local, so you need to appeal to the existing market while you develop a new, international market. Bigger ticket items such as hotels and other big structures are also challenging. Banks have been leery lately about providing capital for those kinds of investments. But experiential tourism has relatively low overhead. You can develop a quality experience without a ton of money.

 

HEP: What recommendation do you have for First Nations looking to get into tourism?

CB: First of all, benchmark how other nations have developed successful products, such as what the Haida have done in B.C., or the Maori of New Zealand and Native Hawaiians. And then look at the resources that are available and use them to map out a plan; reach out to ITAC, and to the economic development side of Tourism Saskatchewan. They can provide you with some fundamental knowledge about of the Indigenous tourism market in Saskatchewan.

Tourism is a complex beast. It is more than just leisure. It can be business focused, e.g. conferences, or medically focused, e.g. treatments, or even educational experiences. Ask yourself what resources you have, and if they can fill gaps in the market.

Also work with your communities so that consent can be given, especially if you are sharing cultural knowledge and practices. It’s very important that that work is done up front.

Finally, identify where you can access training. The biggest part of developing a good tourism product is having a labour force that can provide a consistently high level experience to everyone. One bad review on Trip Advisor can cause significant damage. You can build a beautiful hotel but without good staff you will be dead in the water in no time.

 

HEP: What’s the easiest way for Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs to gain more expertise on the tourism industry?

Two great events are coming up. One is the annual Saskatchewan Indigenous Business Forum, which will be held on September 24th in Saskatoon and will focus on tourism. It is more locally oriented.

The other is the upcoming Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada international conference, which is also being held in Saskatoon on October 30th. It’s bringing delegates from across the country and elsewhere to talk about new opportunities, highlight success, and share best practices. Both of these will provide a great space for any nation considering tourism development to learn more and start networking within the industry.

* * *