P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq community should look at growing aboriginal tourism on the Island with the help of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada, says the group's interim board member for the province.
Charlie Sark said it's the perfect time, given the association has just released a new five-year strategic plan which aims to increase aboriginal tourism across the country. One of the association's top three targets is to see 50 new aboriginal tourism operators established by 2021.
Sark believes P.E.I. could conceivably be home to at least three to five of these new businesses, which could be marketed nationally and internationally to tourists. He already knows of a number of Island Mi'kmaq interested in offering authentic aboriginal experiences.
"There's a huge interest in the culinary aspect of this. There's a huge interest in the artisan way of doing demonstrations for baskets, for quills, and for other arts, drum making."
Experiential tourism key to growth
According to the association's strategic plan, Atlantic Canada has the smallest number of the country's aboriginal tourism businesses, at only nine per cent — another reason Sark believes there is ample room for growth.
"I don't think we've done a good enough job selling ourselves as the other regions have," said Sark.
The Island currently only has one aboriginal tourism business listed on the association's membership directory. The Indian Arts and Crafts shop at Lennox Island was started by Sark's uncle, Ray Sark, 45 years ago, and now is run by his mother, Doreen Sark.
Charlie Sark said this retail business continues to draw tourists up to western P.E.I., but he believes experiential tourism should be the next phase of development.
"Most people have in their head, when they think of aboriginal tourism, they think of an experience. They think of immersion in a cultural event, or an experience they can have on the land, on the water."
Infrastructure already there to build off
Larger developments, like the nature trails and the cultural centre in Lennox, are already there to build on. These were developed more than 10 years ago when Lennox launched an ecotourism project.
Sark said that venture wasn't the success the community hoped for, but lessons from that can help guide the future. He does think trying to grow the ecotourism initiative too quickly may be been a factor, which is why he's calling for a cautious approach with any new developments.
"Let's build this slowly and make sure we're in the right direction, because it's really hard to recover if we don't do it right."
Some of that planning begins Monday night at a Mi'kmaq feast Sark is organizing with some of the members of the community interested in establishing tourism businesses, community leaders, elders and the head of the CEO of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada, who is on the Island.