Indigenous Tourism Critical to Sustainable Future of Travel

24 November 2020

Can Indigenous tourism protect Indigenous communities rather than weaken them?

What tools can promote mutual enrichment between Indigenous peoples and conscientious tourists?

Can Indigenous Tourism Boost Post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery?

These were some of the important questions raised during the inaugural Indigenous Tourism Forum of the Americas held 12-16 October, organized jointly by the George Washington University International Institute of Tourism Studies, OAS, and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. It launched the challenge of uncovering how Indigenous leaders across the Americas can plan for a post-pandemic reality and what action they can take now as they look to the future.

To address this and other issues in the segment of Indigenous Tourism, the event had a robust body of speakers made up of Indigenous leaders, researchers, representatives of the private sector, and government authorities, among other stakeholders.

Consistent with the integration proposal, the event began with an Indigenous blessing, demonstrating that in addition to the success of the conversations, the spirituality and subjectivities of the peoples must be taken into account throughout the forum.

According to the UNWTO, rural and community tourism is considered the fastest growing sector of tourism. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Indigenous people and brought tourism to a standstill for most Indigenous communities in the Americas. Destinations and communities must work together to prepare for the return of tourists in the new reality, as detailed in presentations of success stories and challenges addressed by the first panel, as well the guidelines to be followed when working within Indigenous Tourism.

The first discussions pointed to the caution required of Tour operators and Travel Advisors to understand some elements that might not be obvious to someone looking at the segment for the first time. Things like keeping group sizes small; the importance of working with community leaders continuously to clearly communicate what might be positive or negative impacts; and remembering that unlike a tour operator, tourism is not always the community’s main activity. Also that the community needs to be a part and the protagonist of the experience creation. While Indigenous tourism can be a starting point to understand and respect nature, the preservation and development of Indigenous peoples must be equivalent to the commercial growth it provides.

Tourism is an important tool that can help with the disconnect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, but it needs to find a balance between the protection and promotion of culture.

Ben Sherman, Chairman of the WINTA Leadership Council and member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation, brought to all the validity of the Recommendations of the World Tourism Organization on the sustainable development of Indigenous tourism, and shared some highlights of how to work with the segment: 

  • Include the visitor in activities related to biodiversity and sustainability (such as planting seeds or trees)
  • Educate the traveling public about the relationship to the land ("over and over," Sherman said.)
  • Use technology throughout the travel journey--from booking through post-experience--to keep people motivated to learn about the community (keep telling the stories of the community)
The Indigenous leader and Panamanian deputy Petita Ayarza (Guna) addressed the demands on the private sector to make proposals to the governments who see tourism as a key to reach private and public funds and investments, but noted that it is an abyss of language if there is no representative to bridge the gap.

The Canadian model was highlighted for its organization and distribution of government funds to different peoples, as well as incentives for their cultural and development activities.

When questioned about the difference in infrastructure between Canada and other communities in the south of the continent, Keith Henry of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), said it took aggressive effort advocating the government and banks to get legislators to continually support these policies that empower the industry. 

In the ministerial discussion on Indigenous tourism initiatives, representatives from El Salvador, Ecuador, Panama, Dominica, and the United States (among others), highlighted their interest in the sector as well as answering questions about their post-COVID-19 recovery plans. Ms. Morena Valdez, Minister of Tourism of El Salvador stated that "the destinations that had worked on their identity are the ones that best highlighted their Indigenous culture. If we don't know who we are, we can't be proud of it."

The event concluded after an intense week with an Indigenous prayer that reinforced the importance of all sectors of the tourism industry being involved in Indigenous tourism, not only as a commercial development but also as part of a strategy to preserve the culture and relationship with their own land and people. 

Indigenous Tourism, like adventure travel, is well suited for post-pandemic recovery. A recent study by Euronews expects increased demand for wide-open spaces, eco-tourism, slow travel, and engaging with local communities, all hallmarks of adventure travel and Indigenous Tourism. An additional trend identified in a recent WTTC report says, “From widespread unemployment and anti-racism movements to the restoration of natural habitats, the world has been reinvigorated to tackle social, environmental, and institutional sustainability.” These trends indicate that Indigenous tourism is perfectly positioned for the recovery of travel post-pandemic. Now is the time for Indigenous community leaders, government officials, tour operators, and others in the tourism sector to connect, collaborate, and prepare for the return of experienced travelers as well as new travelers with pent up desires to get out into the world and look for new activities, cultures, and destinations to explore.