As travelling foodies eat up culinary experiences across Canada, Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO) is working on a strategy to ensure Northern Ontario businesses have the recipe for success.
"There's a real hunger here for Indigenous food tourism," explained Kevin Eshkawkogan, CEO of ITO.
"Food is a great way to tell that story in a way that everyone is comfortable."
Eshkawkogan's first taste of food tourism happened organically in his previous role as CEO of the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT) on Manitoulin Island. It was around 2006, and they were looking for new ways to engage travellers.
"We asked ourselves, 'What did our ancestors do, what did our grandparents do when hosting people?'" explained Eshkawkogan.
They landed on food and started serving cedar tea (a staple in the region) and a modern version of bannock (a traditional Indigenous flatbread) cooked over a fire with locally produced berries and maple syrup to dip it in. What they called the "bannock and berries" experience became one of their most popular offerings.
The strategy--produced by ITO in partnership with Destination Northern Ontario, the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada--is looking to build on experiences like the GSCT's, and outlines the current environment and opportunities for growth.
It points out that the Indigenous tourism sector in Canada grew by 23.2 per cent between 2014 and 2017, outpacing the tourism industry as a whole by nearly nine per cent. They found one third of visitors to Canada say they're looking for Indigenous tourism experiences.
While the demand is nationwide, Ontario leads the way, holding over half of all the jobs in Indigenous tourism and boasting a $622-million GDP. Eshkawkogan said there are about 600 Indigenous tourism companies in the province, and over a quarter of all Indigenous tourism experiences happen in Northern Ontario.
Combined with what they've identified as a clear demand for specifically culinary experiences, the strategy concluded: "There is a strong case for enhancing existing experiences through the inclusion of food while supporting the development of new Indigenous food tourism businesses and experiences."
For local businesses, the strategy is a welcome development.
"It's an exciting time right now to be involved in the Indigenous tourism scene and food culture in general," said Corey Stacinski, general manager of the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre.