The City of Merritt, this community is ideally positioned to take advantage of the lucrative and growing aboriginal tourism boom across British Columbia.
That was the key message presented by Brenda Baptiste, the chair of the board of directors with Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia (ATBC), who was the keynote speaker during the Merritt Chamber of Commerce’s Annual General Meeting held last Thursday evening at the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame building in downtown Merritt.
The Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (ATBC) is a non-profit, stakeholder-based organization that is committed to growing and promoting a sustainable, culturally rich aboriginal tourism industry, said Baptiste.
A sustainable aboriginal tourism sector with diverse products in communities in every region of the province is recognized as one of the major focuses for achieving the target set by the Premier to double tourism revenues in B.C. before the end of 2015, she said.
Baptiste, who has been board chair since 2012, said the aboriginal tourism industry in B.C. has grown significantly over the past few years and 2015 was the best yet with the sector generating in excess of $56 million out of the province’s $14 billion tourism industry.
“And it’s grown each of the past five years … and we expect it to grow even more in 2016,” she said. “There are a total of 78 market ready aboriginal tourism businesses registered with our organization and we have another 150 that are ready to go.”
The key to success in aboriginal tourism is allowing non-First Nations visitors to “share or be involved in an authentic aboriginal experience,” said Baptiste.
“They want to get involved in our culture and experience the First Nation culture directly.”
Baptiste is a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB), which has gained national and international attention for becoming the most successful and economically diverse First Nations band in all of Canada.
The OIB is a full partner in the popular Spirit Ridge At Nk’ Mip Resort in Osoyoos and Chief Clarence Louie and the band council of the day ensured more than a decade ago that the resort would feature a cultural centre that showcases the proud history of First Nation people in the Osoyoos and Oliver area, said Baptiste.
The Nk’ Mip Desert Cultural Centre was built over 10 years ago and attracts tens of thousands of tourists throughout the busy tourist season, she said.
“The resort was actually built around the cultural centre,” she said proudly.
The cultural centre features numerous First Nation historical artifacts, a state-of-the-art movie theatre that showcases films about the region and the history of First Nation people in the South Okanagan, an outdoor staging area where First Nation ceremonies and many weddings take place as well as a beautiful walking trail that is littered with information about local First Nation culture and history.
Aboriginal tourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry in B.C. and the City of Merritt is perfectly situated to take advantage of the growing market with five First Nation communities located within a short distance of the city, she said.
“It is an exciting time to be part of the aboriginal tourism industry in B.C,” she said. “We hope you’ll join with us and become an ATBC stakeholder.”
Since ATBC’s inception in 1977, the development and provision of training and capacity building programs has been considered part of the organization’s mandate and one of its foundational strategies to build a sustainable, culturally rich aboriginal tourism industry, she said.
A big part of her organization’s mandate is to work closely with First Nation and non-First Nation community leaders to develop a plan to entice tourists to visit communities like Merritt, where authentic aboriginal tourism opportunities can be developed, marketed and promoted, she said.
“We’re here to help you,” said Baptiste.
If interested in becoming a stakeholder or to get more information, you can visit the Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia website at www.aboriginalbc.com.