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Brenda Holder walks in the woods at her cabin near Sundre, Alberta where she will offer medicine walks this summer in which participants learn about how Indigenous people use and harvest certain plants, on May 17, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Before the global pandemic emerged in early 2020, Brenda Holder was feeling optimistic about Mahikan Trails, the business she founded and built around her knowledge of how Indigenous people had for centuries used the plants that grew in and around the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Ms. Holder, who is Métis, began sharing that knowledge through plant medicine walks – walking tours on which she gives clients a window into how Indigenous people turn to plants for fuel, food and medicine.

Operating since 2000, Mahikan Trails started small but grew through offerings that included workshops on tanning hides and surviving in the bush. Over the years, the company built a higher profile and began to attract bookings from big tour companies, which meant more customers and a more reliable revenue stream.

But those bookings, along with nearly all her other reservations, disappeared with the pandemic – disrupting Ms. Holder’s plans to expand her company by adding more staff and activities.

COVID-19 dealt an unexpected blow to the tourism industry across Canada, as non-essential travel came to a halt amid tough public-health measures to stop the spread of the virus. For Indigenous tourism – which includes many small, relatively young ventures that don’t have access to lines of credit or other financial safety nets – the pandemic hit particularly hard.

“We were finally starting to get to a place where we were not just comfortable, but the business was actually beginning to thrive,” Ms. Holder said.

“That was a good feeling – until COVID hit.”

For the past few years, Indigenous tourism – a sector that includes hotels, casinos, art galleries, restaurants, wilderness tours and more – had been on a roll.

There was growing confidence as an increasing number of First Nation communities and entrepreneurs seized opportunities to showcase their culture and local regions while keeping jobs and revenue close to home.

Growth in jobs, direct GDP and revenues attributed to Indigenous tourism “significantly” outpaced that of overall tourism between 2014 and 2017, according to a 2019 report by the Conference Board of Canada (CBOC), commissioned by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). The sector looked to be on track to hit ITAC’s goal of $2.2-billion in GDP impacts in 2024, up from $1.7-billion in 2017. But a follow-up CBOC report, released in June, 2020, projected COVID-19-related losses of more than 60 per cent in terms of both GDP and employment, with the number of jobs falling from around 36,000 in 2019 to fewer than 15,000 in 2020.

By April, 2021, pandemic losses had reached “catastrophic” levels, according to ITAC, an industry group that promotes the sector. Hundreds of operators had closed permanently, ITAC president Keith Henry said at the time, and only an estimated 1,000 were hanging on, compared with about 1,900 before the pandemic.

Government programs have helped keep some of those businesses afloat. Last year, the federal government gave ITAC $16-million in stimulus funds that the association used to distribute $25,000 emergency grants to members across the country.

Grant recipients – including Mahikan Trails’ Ms. Holder, who is also an ITAC director – say the emergency funds helped their businesses hang on as customers and revenues vanished.

The federal government says it is working to help the entire travel sector – including Indigenous tourism businesses – get through the pandemic, with budget measures that include a $500-million Tourism Relief Fund.

“Indigenous tourism plays an important role in communities across the country and has been uniquely impacted by COVID-19,” Adrienne Vaupshas, press secretary for Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, said in an e-mail. “We remain committed to supporting Indigenous tourism businesses, and all tourism businesses, through the COVID-19 pandemic and into recovery.”

But Mr. Henry said he’s concerned about how the federal government has structured its support, noting the $2.4-million allotted to ITAC in the 2021 budget falls far short of what the agency requested. He said this means the organization won’t be able to assist its members with emergency grants or other pandemic support this year.

The federal government’s Tourism Relief Fund is open to all local tourism operators, rather than being tailored specifically to Indigenous businesses, and administered by regional development agencies. Those agencies do not have the connections or cultural knowledge that ITAC offers, says Mr. Henry, whose group was seeking increased direct funding from Ottawa.

“The federal budget chose a non-Indigenous-led strategy to help save Indigenous tourism – and we know from years of experience that’s not going to work,” Mr. Henry said in an interview.

Indigenous tourism operators can also apply to other ongoing federal government loan and wage subsidy programs, Ms. Vaupshas said.

But ITAC says its surveys show Indigenous tourism businesses have made limited use of federal relief programs, for reasons that include fear of taking on more debt and a lack of staff or capacity to get through the application process.

A June survey of Indigenous businesses (which included tourism and non-tourism businesses) by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and two other groups found more than one-third of survey respondents didn’t have a relationship with banks, credit unions or government lenders, making it more difficult for them to access capital in a crisis.

With travel restrictions easing and more people being vaccinated across the country, there is hope that the worst may be over – but concerns linger that prior momentum in the sector may be hard to recover.

“Although Indigenous tourism was booming for the last decade, a lot of entrepreneurs who had started up their businesses were in the first three or four years of running them,” said Billy Alexander, executive chef and culinary advisor for Caldwell First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Point Pelee and Pelee Island, near Leamington, Ont.

“It’s not like a lot of businesses had nest eggs.”

Without years of built-up revenues to fall back on, many Indigenous tourism operators scrambled to adapt during the pandemic by launching new products, moving some experiences online or targeting new markets.

Spirit Bear Lodge, an Indigenous-owned facility on the traditional territory of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, in the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s West Coast, was forced to cancel its entire 2020 season once COVID hit, wiping out about $2-million in anticipated revenue. In response to Canada-U.S. border restrictions, the lodge’s owners decided to focus on the domestic market for the 2021 season, which would typically run from June through to the end of October.

Canadian guests stepped up, booking tours and packages previously sought by international guests. Those visitors, mostly from the United States, typically account for for more than 90 per cent of the lodge’s bookings, said Bridget Orsetti, who handles marketing and reservations at Spirit Bear.

But in April, with some restrictions then still in place in B.C. – including no-travel advisories from Coastal First Nations – Spirit Bear announced it was cancelling this year’s season.

Guests who had made reservations have been offered the opportunity to rebook in 2022, Ms. Orsetti said. A skeleton crew of staff is still on the payroll to maintain the building and equipment.

And what was supposed to be a comeback season turned into additional months of strain and uncertainty, with the added worry that the lengthy closure may make it more difficult – or impossible – to recover.

In the peak summer months of July and August, Spirit Bear Lodge employs about 50 full- and part-time staff, making it a significant employer as well as a cultural showcase for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation community.

But as months go by without a reopening, some people may move – at least temporarily – to search for jobs elsewhere.

“The fear is that our staff who depend on a solid five months’ employment, sometimes more, are getting other jobs,” Ms. Orsetti said. “That’s where we are at – because we have nothing to offer them.”

In May, B.C. announced a four-step reopening plan and on July 1 moves to Step 3, which allows for Canada-wide recreational travel. But for businesses such as Spirit Bear, the challenges of reopening mean they wouldn’t be ready to welcome guests in time to take advantage of the prime summer season. As of mid-June, it did not plan to open for the season.

Amid the uncertainty, many business owners are searching for ways to rebuild.

In Ontario, Mr. Alexander is looking to the future in Caldwell First Nation, with plans to build what he hopes will be the largest Indigenous restaurant in the world, with outdoor seating for up to 400 people. The proposed Three Fires restaurant, being built on the site of the former Happy Snapper restaurant and bait store, is part of a larger economic development effort that aims to draw visitors to the region.

Mr. Alexander, a member of the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario, signed on with Caldwell Nation after doing a stint as a consultant on the community’s tourism strategy early in the pandemic.

He was drawn by the community’s ambitious goals for tourism, which include the redeveloped restaurant and marina as well as a winery.

“There is no playbook for this pandemic in the tourism and hospitality industry,” he said. “But what are the things that can become best practices ... that we can look to put back into the industry?”

Fellow business owners in the sector are trying to withstand the challenges while looking ahead to ensuring a vital future once COVID-19 has receded.

Nearby on Manitoulin Island, Neil Debassige, owner of Island Sunrise Cottages, was able to weather the lack of tourists during the pandemic by renting his cottages to long-term guests from within the province and largely giving up on fishing charters.

Mr. Debassige, who also hosts Fuel the Fire, a video series about hunting and fishing, recently spent a few days filming a bear hunt for a virtual-reality tour.

That initiative, part of a program funded by Indigenous Tourism Ontario, acts as a promotional tool and an alternative introduction to his business for potential visitors while travel is still limited, Mr. Debassige said.

He’s hopeful the virtual tour may turn into a potential revenue stream – though details, such as fees and subscriptions, are still a work in progress.

In the meantime, he’s gearing up for a season he hopes will be closer to the prepandemic norm. With more people being vaccinated and travel restrictions being eased, he hopes to hit at least half of his pre-COVID fishing charter bookings.

In Alberta, Ms. Holder is preparing to restart her walks – largely on hold since the pandemic hit – in July. She considered reopening on July 1, but instead plans to spend the day in ceremony and reflection to mark the recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

In Winnipeg, Christa Bruneau-Guenther, owner of the Feast Café Bistro, is also looking ahead. A member of the Peguis First Nation, Ms. Bruneau-Guenther was one of nine Indigenous tourism business operators who received a $10,000 grant in May through a partnership between ITAC and WestJet.

The initiative, first set up in 2019, was initially intended to promote Indigenous tourism packages to WestJet customers, but shifted to a direct grant model to address pandemic challenges.

In a virtual press conference the day the grants were announced, Ms. Bruneau-Guenther said that like most of her industry peers, she had spent the pandemic pivoting her business, focusing on takeout and developing some products for sale as packaged goods.

While the industry keeps an eye firmly fixed on a time when adventure-hungry Canadians and international tourists can travel again, the grant will help her cultivate new ideas and provide a bit of security amid all the uncertainty.

“Indigenous tourism is going to be so important, because people are going to travel locally and domestically first – and we want to be ready.”

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