Local connections key to aboriginal tourism

The new regional aboriginal tourism specialist for the Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA) has big plans for cultivating industry in the Nicola Valley — but it all starts with making local connections.

In early July, Greg Hopf was announced as the regional tourism specialist appointed to TOTA, the result of a groundbreaking partnership between the regional tourism group, and the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC.

TOTA is the first of the five regional tourism groups to appoint an aboriginal tourism specialist — something Hopf described as “huge.”

Since then, Hopf has been travelling around the region, learning as much as he can about the local Indigenous groups, and existing First Nations businesses within the many communities of B.C.’s southern Interior.

Born and raised in the Northwest Territories, Hopf originally hails form the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and brings a wealth of experience on consulting with First Nations communities, and implementing plans to tailor services to their needs and cultural considerations, having previously worked as an executive director of aboriginal sports circles in NWT.

“My job was to go into every community in the NWT, and we had 33 of them, and to work with the communities and really have these deep discussions on what they want from their sports programs in their communities,” he explained. “From their elders, for their kids, for their membership, for those with disabilities.”

Much of the work Hopf will do in creating a roadmap for a sustainable aboriginal tourism model in the Thompson Okanagan will mirror the work he did in Canada’s north.

“A lot of this is very similar — going into reservations and band offices, aboriginal communities in the Thompson Okanagan region and really having those deep discussions as to ‘Where do you see aboriginal tourism,’ and ‘Are you ready for aboriginal tourism?’”

According to a release from the B.C. government, aboriginal tourism is one of the fastest growing tourism areas in the province, experiencing a two-fold increase in revenue between 2006 and 2012, as the industry increased revenues from $20 million to $42 million across the province. The release went on to state that there are more than 300 aboriginal tourism businesses in B.C.

But while the enormous growth of the sector has Hopf excited for the economic opportunities presented to bands in the Thompson-Okanagan region, he remains committed to creating a three-pronged approach that benefits industry, First Nations people, and the tourists themselves.

Historically, the B.C.’s tourism industry has profited from First Nations culture, without First Nations people themselves seeing any of the economic benefit, said Hopf.

“The biggest thing that I found out was that number one, we need to tell our story. Our people have stories, and our legends, our ancestral trails, our practices, our beliefs, our spirit animals — we need to tell our story. Our people are so stereotyped… but we have a story — we’re rich in culture, we’re rich in history, we’re rich in traditions, we’re rich in connecting to our land and our spirits. My job is to really get that story out there,” said Hopf. “Along with telling our story, the most important thing is educating people.”

And while Hopf has a First Nations background, he’s the first to admit that he’s coming in as an outsider to bands in B.C.’s interior. Which is why he plans on leaning on people connected to the communities in the Nicola Valley when he begins to assess the region’s opportunities this fall.

Sharon Bond, owner of the Kekuli Cafe in Merritt, is one of those people Hopf will be leaning on. Bond, who serves on the board of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC, as well as the local chamber of commerce and as a councillor for the Nooaitch Indian Band, grew up in the Nicola Valley. The success of her business, which opened its first location in Westbank before opening in Merritt, was tied to the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC.

“I got lucky — when I opened my business, I didn’t realize it would be such a tourism draw, until I met Aboriginal Tourism BC,” she explained. “They were able to help me with my business, promote it, market it, and really push that side of it during the summer months. It was great to have tourists find us and come in.”

For Hopf, making connections with people like Bond will be essential to his work creating an aboriginal tourism model in the Thompson-Okanagan.

“If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this right. You know, I’m not from here — and I can’t go into communities and say ‘You have to do this, or you have to do that,’ I have to have people who can bring me into these communities, who are from there, and who know the people. I’ll take it from there,” he said.

And Bond understands the specific struggles that First Nations groups in the area face as they look for opportunities for economic growth.

“My role with the band is economic development. We’re looking at some opportunities for the band — we’re such a small band, along with Shackan — but we’re doing really great things out there for such a small community. You’re limited, being so far out of town — I don’t even have cell service at home — transportation is a big issue for community members. How would young people get into work every day? They can’t apply for jobs, etc…,” said Bond.

“That’s a big issue for people who want to go to work, but can’t because of transportation. So it would be nice to have other types of opportunities out there, like campgrounds, something that the band could operate and do for our community members and others out there looking for work.”

Ultimately, she sees opportunity to redefine Merritt’s downtown image, acknowledging the rich history of First Nations groups in the area, and revitalizing the downtown core of the town at the same time.

“My goal is to put Merritt on the map, and working with Aboriginal Tourism BC and people like Greg, we need to revive downtown. Our main three things in this valley are fishing, mining and logging — how do we make that into an identity?”

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