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With a focus on uniting societies, Indigenous Tourism Ontario brings a dedicated platform for Indigenous cultural expression and preservation

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In the fast-paced world we live in, we often miss a great opportunity to experience First Nations, Inuit, and Métis culture in our region. To foster greater cultural understanding, Indigenous tourism is being promoted globally. One question that will now loom around your head is, “What exactly is Indigenous tourism?” Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO) defines it as any tourism activity owned and operated by Indigenous people. Within the mainstream tourism industry, Indigenous tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments. When done well, it can provide a phenomenal visitor experience, and greater cultural understanding of Indigenous societies.

Globally there are various service providers in the Indigenous tourism segment, but one that stands out from the rest is Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO). The non-profit organization is the province’s first and only dedicated Indigenous tourism organization that focuses on uniting societies, Indigenous organizations, and industry leaders to support Indigenous tourism growth in Ontario. Through product development, capacity building, and marketing of authentic Indigenous experiences, ITO establishes a platform for Indigenous cultural expression and preservation through tourism. Indigenous Tourism Ontario was founded in 2016, and is based on Manitoulin Island, Ontario.

In conversation with Kevin Eshkawkogan, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario

Q. Why is Indigenous tourism important? Will it improve the overall well-being of Indigenous communities and individuals?

Indigenous tourism is about Indigenous people telling our story on our terms. Our people have been doing tourism here for thousands of years, and there is no one better suited to host visitors on the land. Our mission is to assist Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs with programs that build the capacity to produce high-quality products and services. We ensure our products and services provide a meaningful and memorable Indigenous experience for our welcomed visitors and tourists. Our success will be guided by the positive impact on our people, the environment, and the economy.

Q. The growing number of tourists puts a strain on the freedom of cultural expression. How can we prevent this?

It should be recognized that Indigenous tourism products and experiences are diverse and range thesiliconreview-image-indigenous-tourism-ontario-20across all tourism sectors, including arts & culture, accommodations, outdoor adventure, culinary tourism, and more. ITO promotes cultural authenticity in these products, and that includes sustainability. Our vision is to see a continued divergence from mass tourism models towards a more innovative, sustainable, and regenerative tourism industry.

Q. There are other service providers in the Indigenous tourism segment. How do you distinguish your services from the rest?

There are 133 First Nations in this province, along with our Métis and Inuit friends. Each community and each person has a story to tell and endless unique ways of sharing it. These rich stories connecting tradition and culture are what set Indigenous tourism apart. 

Q. Tell us about the development of your authentic Indigenous experiences.

ITO works with operators across a spectrum of business types – from a new cultural entrepreneur offering guided walks on the land on their days off, to export-ready accommodations and group excursions. We support Indigenous cultural and tourism entrepreneurs in the areas of branding and marketing, cultural authenticity, product development, and HR training and development. We recently released our 5 Year Strategic & COVID-19 Recovery Plan to guide our support for the industry through to 2025.

Q. Do you have any new services ready to be launched?

We have recently launched our website IndigenousExperienceOntario.ca to help prospective travelers find authentic Indigenous tourism experiences across the province. Our members are featured with listings here, and consumers can search the site by attraction type or geographical region. We are adding new listings weekly. We are working with a diverse set of partners to renew and rejuvenate our industry. We also have several exciting and creative projects in the works, including incorporating Virtual and Augmented Reality into tourism offerings. Stay tuned for lots of news in the next few months and years.

Meet the leader behind the success of Indigenous Tourism Ontario

Kevin Eshkawkogan is the CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario. He is an Anishnabek and is a member of the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. Kevin has been a key player in the development of Indigenous cultural tourism in Ontario since 2003. Kevin works tirelessly to unite Indigenous tourism providers, grow market reach and bring meaningful employment opportunities to the region. Kevin is a mentor and visionary who works closely with his community to ensure sustainable and organic growth within the Indigenous tourism industry. In 2015, Kevin was named the Tourism Champion of the Year by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario. Kevin sits on a variety of boards including the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO). He has also helped establish ITO, ITAC, Northeastern Ontario Tourism, Destination Northern Ontario, the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, and many other tourism organizations and businesses. He also sits on the Destination Ontario Sector Advisory Committee, Tourism Skillsnet Ontario Council, and the Trans Canada Trail Indigenous Advisory Committee.

“Indigenous Tourism Ontario provides access to invaluable marketing, sales, and business development programs that build capacity to produce high quality tourism products and services. ITO is well aligned and positioned to support Indigenous communities and Entrepreneurs in all stages of business development. Our success at ITO is guided by the positive impact on our people, environment and economy.”