As someone who spends his days thinking about tourism development for Indigenous communities across Canada, I see great potential in the idea of an airport for western Cape Breton.
Indigenous tourism is a growing part of a growing industry. In 2018, it generated $1.8 billion in economic activity and supported over 40,000 jobs in this country. There is also an unprecedented demand for Indigenous tourism experiences – 37 per cent of international visitors to Canada said they’d be interested. Those are all signs that we need to take advantage of the growth potential of the sector and improving access with an airport is a big part of that.
To me, the airport project aligns with the federal Tourism Growth Strategy, the Atlantic Growth Strategy, our national Indigenous strategy and the fundamental notion that we should always be striving to grow our tourism economy. To summarize, all of these strategies are focused on capitalizing on tourism advantages, building sustainable growth, and finding opportunities for success.
In particular, I look to two goals of Pillar 1 of the federal Tourism Growth Strategy – “growing tourism in rural and remote communities” and “increasing Indigenous tourism by investing in projects such as market readiness activities and onsite experiences development…”
Both of these goals are met by the proposed airport project, which would unlock the potential of the rural, remote, and beautiful western shore of Cape Breton.
This project has tremendous potential to support Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada’s (ITAC’s) vision of “a thriving Indigenous tourism economy sharing authentic, memorable and enriching experiences.”
There are five Indigenous communities on Cape Breton Island, representing over 7,000 people. We know that this Indigenous population is young and growing, and our job in the Indigenous tourism industry is to provide them a reason to stay in Cape Breton and the opportunities to make that choice.
By building a local sustainable tourism cluster on the island, which includes Indigenous tourism, we will go a long way toward providing these Indigenous youth and existing Indigenous businesses with the economic opportunities they need.
As with almost any public sector investment, this one has generated conversation and some controversy. It’s important that we all work from the same set of facts on an issue as important as this.
I don’t want to suggest that ITAC knows everything about this project yet. Things like a detailed operational plan and commercial flight schedules remain open questions. But I don’t see that as unusual for a project of this scope and complexity. The basics of the case are in the public domain, and I’m hopeful that government will give the project the due consideration it gives to all applicants for federal funding.
Western Cape Breton is a region with tremendous commercial growth potential, which includes rich Indigenous culture. In order to maximize economic activity in the area – which disproportionately depends on tourism – we must improve and increase access. With tourism growth in Cape Breton outpacing the rest of Atlantic Canada, now is the time to capitalize on the momentum and opportunity that exists in the region.
In closing, I want to emphasize that I see this project as an opportunity for all partners, including Indigenous tourism partners in the region. While the Cabot golf courses have been the lead champion for a new airport in Inverness, I see benefits spreading far and wide, benefiting local Indigenous communities, Indigenous businesses, small towns, and tourism operators all along the western shore of Cape Breton.
This is a moment for leadership, and I hope we can take it.
Keith Henry is president and CEO of Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), headquartered in Vancouver, B.C.