The Canadian tourism sector as a whole is expected to take until 2024 or 2025 to rebound back to 2019 levels – but the Indigenous tourism industry may take a further four or five years.
A Conference Board of Canada report released this past week indicated there have been some signs of a tourism industry recovery in 2021, but still projects a 54-percent decline in direct GDP (gross domestic product) compared to levels before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Canada early last year.
The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, or Itac, commissioned the report. It is the third economic assessment issued on Itac’s behalf by the Conference Board of Canada since 2018.
“We wanted to see how serious it has been because there is just no data for Indigenous tourism in the country unless we do it,” said Keith Henry, Itac’s president and chief executive officer.
In 2019, pre-pandemic, Indigenous tourism in Canada employed almost 39,000 people and brought in an estimated $1.86 billion in direct GDP.
Last year, during the peak of the pandemic, Indigenous tourism only contributed about $580 million in direct GDP, almost a third of 2019 numbers. The number of individuals employed by Indigenous tourism fell to about 10,600.
The number of workers almost doubled this year to about 20,000, and there will be an estimated $858 million in direct GDP in 2021.
“Research like this is important to gauge the health of our industry with concrete data, even if it shows our greatest fears playing out, including over one billion dollars-worth of sales lost,” said Henry in a news release.
“This is devastating for Indigenous entrepreneurs, nations, and communities from coast to coast to coast, who rely heavily on tourism for cultural revitalization and economic diversification.”
2028 is ‘best-case scenario’
About 350 Indigenous-owned tourism operators across Canada responded to a detailed survey between April and June of this year. Those owners were asked for their insights into what they’ve experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, and what they anticipate will happen to their businesses this year and in 2022.
Henry said he was not really surprised by any of the information released in the report on September 10.
“It pretty-much reinforced the challenges we have,” he said.
But, Henry added, of further concern is internal research by Itac using national tourism organization Destination Canada’s recovery model.
While Destination Canada expects tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2025, Henry said, Itac’s research suggested Indigenous operators will be waiting “at least until 2028 to get back to 2019 levels.”
“That’s best-case scenario,” he said. “But we’re probably looking at 2030.”
Federal officials announced a $500-million Tourism Relief Fund in mid-July. Ten percent of this fund, $50 million, was to go toward Indigenous tourism businesses.
Henry said Indigenous portions of the federal fund were sent to various regional development agencies.
“We don’t believe that’s going to be an effective process at all,” Henry said. “As it stands today, despite that announcement, there has not been a single Indigenous business that has been able to access that program successfully.”
This year’s federal budget allocated $2.4 million to Itac, far from the $18 million it requested.
Henry said that while Itac officials are keen to continue advocating for more funding, things are at a standstill.
“They put all projects on hold because of the election,” he said. “We don’t have much confidence we’re going to get anything [more this year]. We hope we do, but we’re not confident.
“The first thing we’re going to be doing is finding out when the minister of tourism is appointed, and the minister of Indigenous services, and saying we need to act now. We cannot wait for these programs.
“More has got to be done. We’re going to be advocating very hard once this election is done.”