Cathy KirkpatrickSenior Advisor, Tourism



Growing Indigenous Tourism in Canada:
In Conversation with Makatew & Ottawa Tourism

Pre-COVID, Canada had become a global exemplar of how to build a thriving Indigenous tourism sector. One in three international visitors said they were interested in an Indigenous experience, and the sector’s direct GDP and revenue gains were outpacing those of overall tourism.

Like many industries, however, Indigenous tourism in Canada was ravaged by the pandemic; it’ll take at least until 2028 for the sector to return to its peak levels of employment and GDP.

The good news? Travel is rebounding, the demand for Indigenous experiences is high, and the benefits to cultivating the sector’s growth are far-reaching. There’s an opportunity to build back better.

To explore these benefits, and how destination marketers and Indigenous operators can collaborate, we spoke with three prominent tourism stakeholders: Marc Forgette, French-Algonquin Owner of Makatew Workshops in Carp, Ontario, as well as Ottawa Tourism’s Catherine Callary, Vice President of Destination Development, and Kelly Haussler, Director of Destination Development.

“Indigenous tourism is reconciliation in action.”

From a destination marketing perspective, there are so many good reasons to support Indigenous operators. To start, their stories are authentic and culturally driven, exactly what visitors want. As well, there’s a kind of circular economy that happens when you empower an Indigenous business. Oftentimes, that operator will support another Indigenous business, either directly or indirectly. There’s a positive ripple effect.

Most importantly, though, tourism can be a vehicle for reconciliation.

Catherine believes it’s crucial, now more than ever, for Canada to take action in meaningful ways to support Indigenous voices – and much of that action needs to be driven by Indigenous voices themselves. In that respect, destination marketing organizations (DMOs) can help.

“We need to ensure that the people who are sharing this beautiful culture are doing so from a place of empowerment and self actualisation. It’s very important to us to use the tools we have in our toolkit to help these businesses get off the ground.”

One such business is Makatew Workshops, owned by Marc Forgette, a French-Algonquin member of the Apitipi Anicinapek Nation (formerly Wahgoshig First Nation). In 2020, Marc participated in the Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training, spearheaded by Ottawa Tourism in partnership with Algonquin College. The training was designed specifically for Indigenous learners to help kickstart their tourism businesses.

Marc’s a true success story of what’s possible with a little support. Today, he facilitates workshops for groups of up to 1,000 people, helping participants make a traditional Indigenous craft while learning about topics like truth and reconciliation. 

“I want them to walk away with more questions and continue their journey into wanting to learn about our culture,” says Marc. “One of the best ways to do that is to immerse themselves in something that’s traditional and sacred to us.”

Marc Forgette – Makatew Workshops

“We need to do it right, not fast.”

Enriching a destination’s Indigenous tourism ecosystem doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a thoughtful approach to relationship building and collaboration. Ottawa Tourism, for example, lives by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada’s motto ‘nothing about us without us.’

“This is all about supporting as opposed to leading,” says Catherine. “And not bringing a colonial mentality to developing these experiences. It’s not for the non-Indigenous partner to say how the experience should unfold.”

For Ottawa Tourism, every relationship starts with exploring how each party can leverage its skills to grow, celebrate, and bring economic impact to Indigenous communities.

“It’s a slow process,” Kelly says, “because you have to get to know people, and they have to get to know you, and you have to trust each other. We want to do it the right way, not the fast way.”

Sometimes, Kelly adds, it’s about having that first conversation: many operators, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, don’t realize they fall into the tourism category. That understanding can get the ideas flowing, which can open doors to various forms of support like funding opportunities.

Marc, for example, with Ottawa Tourism’s help, recently capitalized on some funding to help open his new facility in Carp. Having a physical, visitor-ready space has allowed him to expand his operations and partner with more Indigenous makers.

“I’ve had great support from Ottawa Tourism, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and others. Now I want to pass that down and help other Indigenous entrepreneurs get to where I’m at. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

In terms of relationship building, Kelly also notes the value of gaining first-hand cultural awareness training, something that’s doubly important for destination developers keen on nurturing Indigenous tourism.

“[Our staff has] been doing small-group training sessions with Pikwàkanagàn First Nation. We’re going into the community and deepening our understanding of Algonquin culture, learning things we didn’t learn when we were growing up. We’re learning about the challenges they endured.”

“Respect is everything.”

While DMOs play an important role in supporting Indigenous tourism experiences, they don’t do it alone. Visitors have a role to play, too, in the way they engage.

“We’re hearing a lot in the tourism community about visitors walking off the path and trampling over ecosystems to get a selfie,” says Catherine. “It’s all driven by this kind of Instagram-heavy culture.”

Still, Catherine believes respect is going to reemerge in the travel context, and that Indigenous tourism is a wonderful vessel for it, especially with so much talk of regenerative tourism.

Marc agrees, and also believes that you can embody respect in your willingness to learn and ask questions. Encouraging dialogue among his workshop participants, for example, is how Marc breaks down barriers. It’s how he instills confidence in people to appreciate Indigenous culture without the fear of appropriating it.

“By not asking questions and not participating, I think you’re losing out on a lot,” he says. “You’re assuming you can’t do something like go to a powwow. The best way to know is to ask. You won’t be judged or ridiculed.”

At Alphabet®, we can testify to the welcoming environment Marc fosters during his workshops. Each time we’ve worked with him, there’s been a strong exchange of active listening and respect from both sides, which makes everyone more comfortable and facilitates a productive session.  

The way forward.

As the tourism industry continues its efforts to recover from the pandemic, the appetite for Indigenous experiences, both domestic and international, is likely to keep growing. It’s up to destinations, all levels of Canadian government, and even visitors, in how they engage with these experiences, to help foster the sector’s success.

Fortunately, industry partners like the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Indigenous Tourism Ontario, and others can provide valuable data and guidance on the challenges and opportunities facing Indigenous businesses – but these insights are only half the solution. It’s vital that destination developers forge strong, first-hand relationships with their local Indigenous communities, both urban and rural. It’s critical to listen, be respectful, and take an enabling role, not a leading one, when developing or promoting these experiences.

We know the economic benefits. We know the reconciliatory benefits. And we know the benefits to visitors. It’s time to keep amplifying the stories of Canada’s more than 630 First Nation communities. It’s time to rebuild Indigenous tourism in Canada – and to build it back better.

This article was written with generous input from Makatew Workshops and Ottawa Tourism. Learn more about Makatew Workshops here. Learn more about Ottawa Tourism’s Indigenous programming here. View Alphabet®’s work for the Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training program here. Imagery courtesy of Makatew Workshops.

Cathy KirkpatrickSenior Advisor, Tourism

Cathy KirkpatrickSenior Advisor, Tourism


campaigns - culture

Our Year in Tourism Marketing

Many think of travel experiences within the context of large operators – cruise lines, all-inclusive vacations, airlines, hotel chains – but the truth is, it’s the more intimate experiences we tend to treasure most. No, you might not be going to a destination specifically for the ice cream shop with the best cookie-dough milkshake, but it’s these businesses – and these business owners – that often find their way into your travel memories, inspiring the stories you share. And it’s these same businesses that have been hit so hard by the pandemic.

Evolving the message to locals

There’s really no “off mode” for destination marketing. Places don’t stop existing. Instead, they pivot and evolve over seasons and time. Tourism marketing has always required an element of nimbleness to adapt to changing market conditions, but the last year has tested destination marketers like never before.  

We didn’t see the value in waiting for things to turn around; we knew we had to be proactive and creative in our efforts to continue to promote destinations. It was no longer enough to just speak to out-of-town prospects; we had to encourage locals to support their region’s businesses – the same businesses that create those memorable experiences.

Promoting local flavour

Destination marketers asked themselves, “How can we motivate people to support our local tourism economy without traveling and, in some cases, without even leaving their homes?” Our client Tourism Kingston developed the “Together at Home” online entertainment series that brought musicians, artists, chefs, and other makers together for engaging livestream events. The series illuminated Kingston’s local talent while strengthening the bond between residents and the creative community.

Thousands of users tuned in, engaged with social posts, and shared the initiative on their social channels. The program reached more than 3.7 million users, with 95,000 page views of online content and more than 22,000 direct-to-partner business referrals.

For South Eastern Ontario, we helped develop a holiday-themed gift guide that featured products from local retailers and makers. The client compiled a handpicked collection of unique and locally made gifts from more than 60 of its shops and artisans around the area. This ultimate gift guide was a great way to support the local love movement that spread across the country while providing direct promotional support to small businesses.

Earning our impressions

During the pandemic, Alphabet® determined the need for a sustained, strategic earned media approach to help build future business for our tourism clients. Traditional advertising – like TV spots, radio ads, and billboards – can be less relevant for brand-building and creating awareness for a place. It’s the stories of a region and its people, and the ability to create an environment to share those stories, that really connects with today’s travellers. 

Collaborating with Beattie Tartan – Canada’s leading PR agency specializing in travel and tourism – we worked to develop specific content and paid media strategies. Our collaboration on storytelling, with a focus on local operators and experiences, resulted in more than 250 million impressions. More than 1,200 businesses have been featured. With a proactive outreach to journalists and influencers, we focused on the long play through strategic awareness-building. We also conducted weekly meetings to ensure our messaging was always timely, relevant, and aligned to current health and travel restrictions. 

Always-On Marketing

Destination marketing should be ongoing to build familiarity with a place, its people, and its experiences. Even during the pandemic, we took this exact approach – always being mindful of how travelers are influenced and motivated by a destination’s unique businesses and experiences.

Alphabet® has spent decades in the tourism sector, developing brands and campaigns for destinations across Canada. You can see some of our tourism work here, and don’t hesitate to reach out to see how we can help move your destination forward.

Cathy KirkpatrickSenior Advisor, Tourism

Cathy KirkpatrickSenior Advisor, Tourism


awards & events - campaigns

2018 Silver Leaf Award of Excellence

We’re proud to say our expert communication strategy for CIRA won the 2018 Silver Leaf Award of Excellence

CIRA (The Canadian Internet Registration Authority) manages the .CA domain name registry on behalf of Canada. .CA is the only domain that instantly identifies you or your business as uniquely Canadian but CIRA’s fight for market share needed a bold new disruptive approach.

Enter Alphabet. We helped CIRA position the .CA brand as the iconic, recognizable symbol of Canada on The Internet.

The message was simple—the internet needs more Canada. By using a .CA to represent yourself or your business online, you leverage all the positive brand attributes of the Canadian identity. When you choose .CA, you become an ambassador for Canada on the internet and that comes with all the positive associations and the trust that Canadian values inspire among Canadians, and people worldwide.

Alphabet cemented this message by communicating the key benefits of a .CA domain:

    • It’s safe, secure and trusted
    • More likely to be available
    • Ranks higher in Canadian search ranking

Another challenge was that CIRA doesn’t sell .CA domains, they only register them. Like all domains, .CA domains are actually bought and sold through online retailers like GoDaddy, Bluehost, Google Domains, etc.

Because of this disconnect, CIRA needed to create broad awareness for .CA amongst Canadians so they would recognize and value .CA domains over other options. Our messaging needed to be indelible so Canadians would remember to choose .CA when it came time to register a domain.

The brand personality of .CA needed to be energetic, driven, innovative, and approachable. To do this, we collaborated with CIRA to tell stories through a variety of channels with engaging content that included video development, ‘how to’ videos, testimonials, .CA success stories, and a fully integrated digital media strategy.

In short, our work with CIRA has made .CA into a badge of honour that carries a proud Canadian brand identity.
Choose Canada. Choose .CA.

Cathy KirkpatrickSenior Advisor, Tourism