The first major study of Indigenous tourism in more than a decade points to the increasing importance, growth and sophistication of Indigenous tourism across Canada.

The study, commissioned by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) and conducted by O’Neil Marketing and Consulting, found that Indigenous tourism accounts for $2.5 billion in gross economic output, $1.34 billion in national GDP, $817 million in wages and salaries and more than $63 million in tax revenue to municipal, provincial and federal governments.

Indigenous tourism employs roughly 32,000 people, 2 per cent of the entire Canadian travel sector workforce. Indigenous tourism companies are involved in a variety of business areas, including outdoor and adventure related activities, event and conference management and attractions related products, experiences and services.

The United Kingdom, Germany, United States and China remain key markets for Indigenous tourism, with France, Indonesia and India showing positive growth. The recent weakening of the Canadian dollar combined with a resurgent American economy has also placed extra emphasis on the United States as a priority for all Canadian tourism marketers.

British Columbia, home to one third of Canada’s First Nations and the second largest Indigenous population, has experienced strong growth in Indigenous tourism over the past decade. In 2010, 3.7 million visitors included Indigenous experiences on their itineraries and spent $40 million learning about and experiencing First Nations culture. This represents nearly 100 per cent growth since 2006. Today there are more than 200 Indigenous tourism businesses in BC, an 85 per cent increase over 2006, which together contributes $561 million in value added GDP.

Neighbouring Alberta is home to 140 Indigenous-themed businesses that contribute nearly $170 million in value added GDP. Meanwhile Ontario, home to the largest Indigenous population in Canada with nearly 470 Indigenous tourism businesses, can attribute almost $1 billion in value added GDP generated by Indigenous tourism.

However, the report also acknowledges that there are some critical challenges and weaknesses that need to be addressed. The greatest negative impact since the last national study (2002) on Indigenous tourism has been the loss of regional Indigenous tourism organizations. Surveys of 132 Indigenous tourism business and 36 travel trade representatives also identified barriers that are limiting the ability of Indigenous tourism to reach its potential. Access to financing, and training and retaining qualified staff are ongoing challenges. Marketing strategies among Indigenous tourism operators and regions are often poorly coordinated; visibility at transportation gateways such as airports is weak, as is overall market awareness. Travel trade relationships and guidelines governing authenticity of the Indigenous tourism experience are others areas that survey respondents highlighted as in need of improvement. On the marketing side of the equation, there is a need for more coordination between regional Indigenous tourism initiatives and Indigenous tourism organizations.