Indigenous Peoples, COVID, and Adventure Tourism

4 August 2020

The United Nations (UN) has designated August 9 of each year as the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The 2020 theme is COVID-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience, marked by a virtual event on August 10. Although many experts are concerned about the effects of COVID on indigenous peoples’ health and livelihood, especially as it relates to tourism, the aim of this event is to highlight a positive aspect: “how the preservation and promotion of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and practices can be leveraged more fully during this pandemic and build back stronger.” One of the consumer segments typically associated with tourism to indigenous communities is the adventure traveler.

A June-July 2020 study by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) found that U.S. adventure travelers expect to resume near pre-COVID level travel spending in 2021, three years before the overall U.S. travel market is expected to recover. For the remainder of 2020, U.S. adventure travelers are much more likely than the general U.S. traveler (80% compared to 26%) to seek out nature and outdoor activities. The same study indicates that small towns, villages, remote destinations, national and state parks and reserves, and rarely visited destinations are preferred overnight stay options for these travelers.

While these numbers bode well for the financial component of tourism for indigenous groups, many of which fall into the preferred categories listed above, the UN cautions that it is essential to safeguard these communities’ knowledge of and connection to the natural world. Their territories are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and they have a deep understanding of how to restore balance with the earth. This knowledge can be used to help the rest of the world’s population better understand how to prevent and cope with future natural health crises.

Additionally, it is imperative to respect the delicate situation of the indigenous people as they respond to the pandemic. Many are using traditional practices and preventive measures like voluntary isolation and sealing off their territories to prevent COVID from spreading among their people. According to the UN, “Indigenous communities already experience poor access to healthcare, significantly higher rates of diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation, and other key preventive measures, such as clean water, soap, disinfectant, etc. Likewise, most nearby local medical facilities are often under-equipped and under-staffed. Even when indigenous peoples can access healthcare services, they can face stigma and discrimination.” 

Although indigenous groups are taking their own measures to protect themselves from COVID, the rest of the world has a responsibility to take action as well. While adventure tourists are interested in traveling to the small and remote destinations that are often associated with groups of indigenous peoples, the impact of their visit is stronger than ever. Many tour operators and guides depend on income from this market segment, but that financial benefit is not always worth the risk to their health and safety. “Especially now, they need us. Especially now, we need the traditional knowledge, voices and wisdom of indigenous peoples.”

Additional Resources for Responsible Travel with Indigenous People:

G Adventures’ Indigenous People and the Travel Industry: Global Good Practice Guidelines

World Indigenous Tourism Alliance’s Resource Library

Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC)’s Indigenous Cultural Experiences National Guidelines