By Terra Kerani MacPhail
Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO) has been at the forefront of cutting-edge technological advances long before the pandemic highlighted the need for the melding of technology and cultural tourism. The genesis of the grassroots organization dates back to the 2000s but has really solidified its programming since 2018.
“We were finalizing our strategy then the pandemic hit…” said Kevin Eshkawkogan, President and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Ontario, “…and we pivoted. We took all that we had gathered from our membership and looked at how we could best serve them during the pandemic. We had to look at how we could preserve, renew and rejuvenate Indigenous Tourism in Ontario over the next five years. Embracing technology is at the heart of our strategy.”
Inspired by the medicine wheel, ITO is based on four key directions of development and support. These four directions are cultural authenticity, human resource development, product development and marketing/branding. Together this model creates a framework for all the work they do and sets the stage for success. In addition, ITO programs strive to be educational, interactive and experiential.
Forced to explore different methods of meeting the needs of their membership and to increase and diversify businesses’ revenue streams, ITO began a journey into product development that includes high-tech solutions like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Relatively new, VR technology is often thought of as part of the gaming space. VR can also allow users to engage with and experience peoples, places and cultures in a whole new way. “We recently sold our first VR experiences and are very proud to say it was a hit, and the revenue model we created ensured over 60% of the revenue went to an operator,” said Eshkawkogan. VR is device-dependent in that one typically requires specialized equipment, such as a headset that fits securely over one’s eyes, and once donned allows the user to experience a three-dimensional reality of a culturally significant scene.
ITO VR and AR simply requires one to have a smartphone, a common must-have in today’s virtual world. Examples of experiences include the process of skinning and tanning an animal hide in the traditional way, hunting by bow in a tree stand, and learning about various dance styles. ITO hosts some examples of VR on their YouTube channel Indigenous Tourism Ontario VR with more being produced regularly. Their primary market at this point is corporate. Board meetings, conferences and special events are already seeking out quotes and pricing.
ITO has worked with partners such as Origin /Immersive Link to create 360-degree tourism experiences, and they’re creating an Ontario-wide app showcasing augmented reality with the help of EXAR Studios. The ITO AR app theme is inspired by a project known as the Moccasin Identifier. ITO is finding new and innovative ways to connect people with authentic Indigenous experiences while giving another platform for Indigenous Peoples to tell their stories. Utilizing moccasins as the key symbol for telling a new Indigenous story allows this app to grow around the world.
So what is AR? Have you ever been to a historically significant place or monument and wish the plaques and stories told there were written and explained from an Indigenous perspective? This is the magic of what augmented reality can do. ITO is in the process of developing ways to do just that—breathe new life into historic and culturally significant places and spaces using mobile phones and a little imagination. The app will educate travellers when they are entering First Nations, treaty or traditional territories. It will also focus on vetted historical locations and Indigenous tourism businesses.[signinlocker id=”6837″]
Indigenous Peoples are the original tourism hosts and have always been tech-savvy, from finding the best way to create fire to building incredible architecture in the harshest climates, and who can forget the canoe. And today is no different. Always innovating and learning to adapt using what is in front of us, we create new opportunities to tell our stories. We adapt to new ways of being, thinking and knowing while using technology to preserve our language, culture and heritage. Today’s youth rely heavily on technology to learn about the world around them, and ITO knows that this can be adapted to encourage our youth to also embrace the teachings, culture and knowledge of our traditional territories, ways of life and history. Keeping these cultural ideals alive is at the heart of what ITO is focused on doing. Passing them on to the next generation, while encouraging non-Indigenous Peoples to also honour and respect our ways of life.
“It’s a very customized approach that we take working with our members who are tourism operators. It goes far beyond moral support because through our programming we can offer business advisors and marketing support, and we can connect the operators with other organizations that can help them with access to capital,” shared Eshkawkogan. “We offer tangible programs such as access to being listed on our consumer-facing website indigenousexperienceontario.ca free of charge. We are here to help operators, and are very strategic and efficient in our work while taking direction directly from operators as we shape strategies that serve them.”
Authentic Indigenous experiences are core to ITO’s mission and vision to enhance and support the growth of a tourism industry that will not undermine culture, but uplift it, and create more value for our youth through sustainable job creation and opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and reconciliation.
The territories that are collectively known as Ontario are rich with dozens of nations, cultures and languages. Anishinaabe, Cree, Haudenosaunee and so many others have lived in this land for as long as memory. ITO is not only the voice of their tourism operator members, but they also represent the voices and echoes of the past as well. Ontario makes up about one third of the Indigenous tourism industry in Canada, and ITO is the voice of Indigenous tourism for the province.
The entire drive behind ITO is to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous Peoples through involvement in the tourism industry. Developing new opportunities and reinvigorating the economy right where Indigenous Peoples live, work and play is at the core of what is occurring with ITO. Creating opportunities that allow people to stay on the ancestral lands that they love while encouraging youth to stay in their communities instead of migrating elsewhere is also at the root of ITOs inspiration for helping.
To make this all, and much more, a reality, ITO has launched the Indigenous Business Advisor Program through which new and existing tourism operators can gain access to support such as mentorship, consulting and financial support. The critical issues facing the sector since the pandemic are ones of basic survival and preservation of their business. ITO is here to help but in ways that go beyond more loans. ITO offers tangible marketing support, sales and business development programs.
Once travel restrictions are lifted, consider planning your next adventure using the resources available at indigenousexperienceontario.ca.
Terra Kerani MacPhail is a prairie-born Métis (Swampy Cree, Scottish and Polish) with roots in the Red River. She is a content creator and account manager on the SAY Magazine team.