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off the beaten path

It used to be a hunting lodge.

These days, the Haida House at Tllaal – the Haida spelling for the nearby village of Tlell, on Haida Gwaii – caters to guests who tote cameras instead of shotguns.

The nine-room inn is also part of British Columbia's aboriginal tourism sector, which has grown in size and sophistication since 2006, when a government-backed strategic plan to nurture the sector got under way.

"If you look at the [Haida House] facility, it's a prototype of what we want to do in business – it has a lot of Haida employment, Haida architecture and menu – a Haida footprint on it that we are all very proud of," says Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation. "It is about respecting the land that we are on in a culturally appropriate way, not in an exploitive way like the bear hunt."

Built in the 1980s, the lodge was formerly known as the Tlell River House and served as a seasonal hunting facility. CHN acquired the lodge and other assets when it purchased the guide-outfitting licence for Haida Gwaii in 2011. The CHN had lobbied for an end to the sport bear hunt on Haida Gwaii for several years previously, spurred in part by a video posted online that showed a bear being shot several times before it stopped moving.

"The trophy aspects of it and that video were just so disgusting – that Haida Nation is now in a different environment, where we do have a lot of decision-making on the lands," Mr. Lantin said, adding that eco-tourism fits with other Haida business ventures, including forestry.

In April, the revamped inn won this year's accommodations award from the Aboriginal Tourism Industry of B.C.

Other award-winning operations included Whistler's Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and the Spirit Bear Lodge in Haida Gwaii.

Aiming to tap global demand for "cultural" tourism experiences, the province launched an Aboriginal Cultural Tourism Blueprint Strategy in 2005.

According to figures from the Aboriginal Tourism Association, revenues generated by the sector doubled from $20-million to $40-million between 2006 and 2010. A strategy for 2012-2017 projects revenues of $68-million by 2017.

Dozens of aboriginal communities – some far from urban centres – are considering or have launched tourism ventures including river-rafting tours, museums and bear-watching tours. A 2012 review found the sector accounted for an estimated 2,900 full-time positions, with about half of those filled by aboriginal workers.

"Some of the locations still have challenges in sustainability, but overall we are seeing a tremendously positive increase year by year," says Keith Henry, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.

As an example of the trend, he cites the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, which has posted increased visit and revenue figures each year since it opened in 2008.

"They are actually becoming profitable and the [Squamish and Lillooet] nations are not having to subsidize it to the extent that they were previously," Mr. Henry said. "It's fair to say that they are starting to turn profits as a business. So not only is it good for cultural revitalization and jobs and all the things it does, it's actually becoming quite profitable."

Over the next five years, the association plans to spent $10-million to improve current attractions and build new ones as well as marketing plans.

"We're limited by the ability of how much we can do with the number of products we can do right now," he adds. "I think this is a very good news story for all of British Columbia."