Prior to Covid-19, Rupert said, Indian Country tourism was ripe for growth.
“I think the industry felt that, as well,” she said. “We did a survey in spring of 2019 of tribal tourism enterprises, and they were generally upbeat about their tourism prospects, with 75% indicating they believed tourism would increase greatly or somewhat.”
To tap that interest, Rupert said, Aianta has focused on targeting local travelers when pandemic restrictions ease. Native communities are generally rural and are often near national parks and other outdoor-focused destinations, the very places that travelers leery of airplanes are first expected to flock to in their cars as the pandemic eases, she said.
“Indian Country is everywhere,” she added. “There are opportunities to visit Indian Country where you can be close to home, not be surrounded by huge crowds and have these unique experiences that are holistic and spiritual.”
Indeed, several tour operators were including new native-focused itineraries this year, including Trafalgar, which was set to launch a Southwest Native Trails trip this spring, offering a deep dive into the culture and history of native communities in New Mexico and Arizona.
Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman said that trip and a new indigenous-focused tour in Colombia were a natural outgrowth of the company’s movement over the past decade to ensure their trips “bring forward the very essence of these places we visit, to truly make a connection to them.”
“So much of their culture, so much of their heritage lives only with them and is not really seen or understood anymore,” he said.
Intrepid Travel was also expanding its portfolio of indigenous experiences in North America, according to Megan Bailey, the company’s North American sales director.
“We were seeing increased interest and demand for more … First Nation experiences on our North American tours before the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “Although we already had a number of tours that included these, we were consistently working to create new experiences.” The company has several itineraries that include visits to the Navajo Nation, including stays in traditional hogan huts. And this year it was introducing an expedition to the Haida Gwaii islands in British Columbia, with a focus on the Haida First Nation culture.
Destination America, a sister company to Trafalgar that helped develop its Southwest Native Trails itinerary, offers some 40 to 50 experiences engaging with indigenous communities in North America, said president and CEO Richard Launder.
Engaging with the native people, Launder said, has a powerful effect.
“If you go out to Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde or Acoma Pueblo, you come away in absolute awe of the history, the sophistication of the architecture and agricultural calendars,” he said. “You develop an immediate appreciation for all of these communities.”
This year, Destination America is developing for another TTC brand, Insight Vacations, the first guided vacation to the Abegweit First Nation on Prince Edward Island, he said.
“We will be able to participate in a kind of open Q&A with Chief [Junior] Gould, and he’ll talk about the good, the bad and the challenges of the nation.
“In a sense it’s not a tourist attraction in that it’s something much deeper. … I think our guests will really be impacted by that experience.”
Despite the current travel shutdown, Matus said she believes indigenous travel will remain a viable tool to help native communities develop their economies while preserving their cultures.
“Many indigenous communities rely heavily on tourism,” she said. “It is our responsibility to ensure that we continue to help indigenous communities be able to shift gears to ensure that the communities continue to have revenue while tourism has come to a stop.”
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