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.

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.