New MOU aims to develop, promote Indigenous tourism sector in Edmonton

Scott Iserhoff didn’t mean to get into tourism, but an event serving Indigenous cuisine to German tourists brought him into the space.

Based in Edmonton, Iserhoff’s Pei Pei Chei Ow — Swampy Cree for Robin — is part educational and part culinary, offering guests the opportunity to learn more about contemporary Indigenous food while also tasting bannock, stews and other dishes.

A new memorandum between two tourism organizations at the provincial and municipal levels aims to see businesses like Iserhoff’s flourish.

“It’ll benefit indigenous people in Indigenous businesses and Indigenous entrepreneurs,” said Iserhoff, who hails from the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation.

Explore Edmonton, the city’s tourism and convention authority, signed the memorandum with Indigenous Tourism Alberta earlier this week with an aim to support the development and marketing of Indigenous tourism businesses in the region.

“We know right now that there is incredible demand,” Shae Bird, CEO of ITA, said in an interview with CBC’s Radio Active.

“We’re in very much the infancy stages of the industry.”

ITA first received funding in 2018 to draw global tourists to the province. Shae said Indigenous tourism was the fastest growing tourism sector in both Alberta and Canada pre-pandemic with around 150 businesses operating across the province. 

Before the pandemic, it was worth an estimated $166.2 million of the provincial GDP.

But like other tourism sectors, Indigenous tourism has been hit hard by COVID-19.

“What we’ve seen is our businesses have been really struggling to keep the doors open,” Bird said.

One upside is that many cater to small groups and have been able to continue to operate with safety measures in place.

It will be another tough summer, Bird expects, but the future outlook is bright. Tuesday’s memorandum will help build awareness and positive recognition for Indigenous tourism through the two organizations, he said.

“[It provides] a little bit of accountability on both partners to ensure that there’s a line vision and to ensure not only the survival of indigenous tourism, but the growth and prosperity of it as we move forward.”

Radio Active8:50Edmonton’s plan to support Indigenous tourism operators

We speak with Indigenous Tourism Alberta and a First Nations business owner about a new memorandum of understanding with the city’s tourism authority. 8:50

Bird estimates there are five to ten Indigenous tourism businesses operating around Edmonton that are export-ready — mature businesses that might have websites that can sell internationally. But there are more ventures just getting off the ground.

“We have such a variety of businesses that are still in the development stages within this region,” Bird said.

The memorandum secures support at the regional level for those new businesses. It also secures the sector’s representation during familiarization tours for tour operators, media products and promotional missions elsewhere.

“And just to really ensure that Indigenous tourism is a priority,” Bird said.

For his part, Iserhoff sees Indigenous tourism in the region “growing and growing and growing.”

“Like you can walk out in downtown Edmonton and see an Indigenous business — that would be really beautiful to see.”

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