Indigenous businesses across British Columbia struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic will have continued support this year and into the future.
Indigenous Tourism BC has just announced a new three-year strategy geared toward helping businesses survive the pandemic, as well as an additional $5 million in funding for extra grants this year.
The Indigenous Alignment Strategy, 2021-2024, aims to rebuild and grow the province’s Indigenous tourism sector after many businesses, especially those in remote areas, were devastated by shifting travel patterns and lost expenditures from Canadian and international markets.
COVID-19 has had devastating impacts to the tourism industry
Destination BC has estimated B.C.’s $21.5 billion annual tourism industry may see a reduction down to $6.7 billion in 2020 results, or a 67 per cent drop, because of the pandemic.
For indigenous businesses, the impact has been huge.
A survey of ITBC stakeholders shows that 91 per cent of businesses have been forced to close or operate in a limited capacity, while 74 per cent have laid off employees.
Brenda Baptiste, chair of ITBC’s board of directors, said the new plan would refocus it’s previous Pulling Together corporate strategy by targeting areas that will have the biggest impact on recovery and growth for businesses and First Nation communities.
“Looking ahead, we are making space for recovery and continuing to rise together, with our actions being very intentional to support Indigenous tourism businesses and communities to succeed,” she said.
“The Alignment Strategy enables us to build on their support and carve a path for a new generation of business leaders, so we can emerge stronger than ever before.”
The strategy has six short term goals to help reimagine and reinvent the post-COVID-19 tourism economy.
The goals include putting programs and tools in place to ensure the survival of 400 Indigenous tourism businesses across the province; further stakeholder engagement and strengthening of relationships; supporting businesses in adopting a digital marketing plan; an increased focus on domestic markets; and working to develop new Indigenous tourism experiences to entice future visitors.
On top of this, Baptiste said the strategy has tactics to directly support stakeholders through funding programs, training and skills development, foundations classes and roundtable discussions.
Grants available for Indigenous businesses in B.C.
In the past year, ITBC has distributed close to $6 million of non-repayable grants, with funding support from the provincial government, to Indigenous businesses and has announced a further $5 million in grants through the BC Indigenous Tourism Recovery Fund, in partnership with Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport this month.
The fund will provide non-repayable grant contributions of up to $45,000 to eligible Indigenous tourism businesses.
“Local businesses continue to struggle – and Indigenous businesses are particularly vulnerable, as the majority are small-to medium-sized enterprises that face unique challenges accessing loans or credit,” said Baptiste.
“An extra $45,000 can go a long way in bridging the gap between the slower winter season and planning for the busier summer, and we hope this funding enables Indigenous tourism businesses across B.C. to continue operating as we move through recovery.”
She said Indigenous tourism businesses on the North Shore have benefited from ITBC's funding and marketing programs this past year.
Biggest challenges for tourism businesses moving forward
One of the biggest challenges for Indigenous tourism moving forward right now is the uncertainty of when normal travel will resume, explained Baptiste.
“With the uncertainties around the pandemic, it is unclear when people will be able to travel within B.C. and to B.C.,” she said.
“As well, for many Indigenous tourism experiences, the international markets are key to the survival of their operations. Shifting from international to domestic can be a challenge in such a short time.
“If businesses cannot run their operations due to travel restrictions, they need to receive financial support to ensure their survival. ITBC is thankful for the funding contributions from our partners to support the Indigenous tourism businesses thus far, but more funding will be needed if travel cannot occur in the near future.”
While it’s been an extremely tough year for many businesses, Baptiste said a positive has been seeing a bigger focus on supporting local and sustainable tourism.
“The pandemic has made many reflect on what is important, and how much we rely on each other,” she said.
“Once tourism re-opens, we suspect travel will be more deliberate with a much more pronounced trend towards eco-tourism which is crucial for our communities, and sustainability.”
Business owners looking for help, can take part in ITBC bi-weekly roundtable discussions and find a wealth of information for support at the ITBC Corporate website.
Other avenues of help for Indigenous businesses during coronavirus
The federal government is offering small and medium-sized Indigenous businesses support through a number of avenues including, Canada's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the Indigenous Community Business Fund, and the Indigenous Tourism Stimulus Development Fund.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.