Indigenous tourism receives $16 million federal pandemic survival boost

Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada

Adds to previous funding, sustaining work by Indigenous tourism organizations

MANITOULIN—The Indigenous tourism industry had been experiencing its strongest growth in five centuries over the past couple of years, with hundreds of new businesses starting up from coast-to-coast, especially in British Columbia and Ontario—then came COVID-19. It should come as little surprise to Islanders that this season’s tourist season has the potential to present the strongest challenges to the industry in generations. Destination Canada is projecting that as many as 57 percent of businesses are not expected to survive the next six months.

Especially vulnerable to the hit from the COVID-19 economic tsunami are new businesses, a category into which most Indigenous businesses fall. In recognition of that vulnerability, on June 11 the federal government announced a welcome infusion of $16 million into the tourism industry—part of a $133 million cash infusion aimed at assisting Indigenous businesses suffering the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. That $16 million will be overseen by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) in the form of $25,000 non-repayable grants.

“As we began to understand the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on not just Indigenous tourism operators but to Canada’s tourism industry as a whole, we worked with our partners within the federal government to create the best possible stimulus funding model we could, to keep Indigenous tourism alive across the country,” said ITAC president and CEO Keith Henry in a release acknowledging the federal funds. “We want to thank the Government of Canada, Minister Miller (Honourable Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services) and Minister Joly (Honourable Melanie Joly, minister of Economic Development) for listening and understanding that Indigenous-led funding models, based on our research, were imperative for our industry to survive.”

“While our top priority remains the health and safety of individuals, I want to acknowledge the great challenges Indigenous businesses and economies have faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Minister Miller. “Indigenous businesses are the driving force of many local economies. With this additional support, Indigenous communities and businesses will have the flexibility they need to respond to their unique economic needs through this difficult time.”

“Canada’s tourism sector has been hit hard by COVID-19, and Indigenous tourism has been particularly affected,” said Minister Joly. “Before the crisis, Indigenous tourism was the fastest-growing part of the industry and this investment will help it come back strong, supporting good jobs and playing a key role in our economic recovery.”

But there was plenty of work already being done by ITAC and Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO) before the first wave had even begun to crest.

Early this month, ITAC launched a four-year, $50 million strategic recovery plan with the goal to respond, recover and rebuild the Indigenous tourism industry across Canada to 2019 levels by 2024.

ITO president Kevin Eshkawkogan (based in the ITO offices in Aundeck Omni Kaning) also expressed appreciation of the federal cash infusion. “This is a really exciting time for Indigenous tourism,” he said, noting that Indigenous tourism was the fastest growing segment of the industry over the past few years. “But a lot of our businesses are new and vulnerable. Even some of our more mature businesses are particularly vulnerable.”

Mr. Eshkawkogan pointed to the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, which was finally moving into the black following a couple of years of growing pains.

The ITAC and ITO strategy is basically two-fold, said Mr. Eshkawkogan. “First we responded quickly to protecting the assets and businesses, ensuring that they would be better able to weather the coming storm. With 60 to 70 percent closing either temporarily or permanently there was a definite challenge to be met.”

To that end the Indigenous tourism organizations looked inward to their own budgets and rapidly rejigged priorities to meet those challenges. The result was a $2.5 million fund scraped together that, while falling far short of need, still helped to shore up the books for several businesses. “We had 141 applications,” noted Mr. Eshkawkogan. “There were four from Manitoulin.” But the ask had already topped $3.5 million at that point.

With the $16 million infusion, the application queue mushroomed to 600 applications in the first intake. “We expect even more in the next intake,” noted Mr. Eshkawkogan.

This is not a small deal for the province, particularly the North.

“Ontario is home to the largest Indigenous tourism industry in Canada with $622 million in contributions to GDP, including 12,924 jobs and 558 Indigenous tourism businesses,” said Mr. Eshkawkogan. “If we project the numbers on national losses, that will translate to a loss of $330 million in direct revenues. Ontario Indigenous tourism businesses contribute $622 million or 33.11 percent of the $1.7 billion that tourism contributes to the national GDP.”

Further, there is a potential job loss of 4,000 jobs in Indigenous tourism. Ontario is home to 12,924, or 36.59 percent of the 39,038 tourism jobs in Canada, said Mr. Eshkawkogan. “We could see a loss of 140 businesses of the approximately 558 Indigenous tourism businesses in Ontario.”

“ITO is implementing a three-phase approach,” he said. “That’s protect, restart and recover.”

In phase one, ITO aims to protect the Ontario Indigenous tourism sector and “continue to support and align with direct investment into national partners such as ITAC, Destination Canada, TIAC, and Tourism HR Canada; provincial partners such as the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) and the other Ontario tourism sector organizations; along with regional partners like the Ontario Regional Tourism organizations. ITO has already repurposed resources to engage business support brokers to help Indigenous tourism businesses navigate through the crisis and prepare for a summer with little to no revenue.

“We have worked hard to guide businesses through the application processes,” said Mr. Eshkawkogan, “and we have been phenomenally successful. I think of this as a ‘rescue’ phase.”

In phase two, “the restart phase, ITO will co-ordinate and administer direct investment into ITO’s four pillars for three years to offset long term issues facing Indigenous tourism businesses and events in Ontario. This will include co-ordinating the following: embracing innovative experience delivery methods and revenue models for Indigenous tourism businesses; assisting businesses develop new product offerings for both domestic and international markets; engage business restart specialists to assist businesses through this phase; align Ontario Indigenous tourism businesses with partners and organizations who can help them not just recover, but surge forward when the time comes; and partner and co-ordinate the necessary training so Ontario Indigenous businesses can thrive in 2021 and beyond.”

The final and third phase, recovery, will involve a three-year window and require a further $2.5 million in funding for ITO over the next two years, split between the feds and the province, to ensure that the organization can “help support the Indigenous tourism industry over the next two years.”