Canada shares lessons of its booming Native tourism

Native dancers wearing colorful masks take the stage here, performing an ancient ritual dance invoking the grizzly bear, a sacred figure for many First Nation peoples in the upper reaches of North America.

The performance is being watched by 15 Taiwanese aboriginals, who have come here to learn the art of creating financially viable native tourism back home.

The Taiwanese visitors are part of a unique exchange program in which they hope to learn from their Canadian hosts about the art and the profit-making potential of aboriginal tourism.

The Council of Indigenous Peoples, a ministry-level body in Taiwan, has sent these young people to learn about aboriginal-run tourism from Canadian indigenous communities to see what aspects of this flourishing trade can be duplicated back home.

"I came to learn, because everything here can be done in Taiwan as well," said one of the visitors, Ibu, a member of the Taiwanese Bunnun tribe.

Ibu is part of the 13th group of exchange students to benefit from the intercultural exchange among First Nations.

In Taiwan, aborigines represent 2.1% of the population, accounting for about a half-million of Taiwan's population of 23 million people. Aboriginal people in Taiwan, however, have been hard pressed to assert their cultural identity.

Like many indigenous people in other parts of the globe, they have been forced by the dominant culture and government to assimilate, and their unique language and culture was in danger of being extinguished.

But beginning in 1987, with the abolition of martial law in Taiwan came a policy of greater tolerance toward native peoples.

In 1996, a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs was created, tasked with aiding the restoring and protecting of indigenous culture.

The current cultural exchange program was launched in 1998 by the Taiwan Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs with support from the Taipei Ricci Institute which promotes the cultural exchange and trade within the communities of Asia and the Pacific.

- 'Pride in being aboriginal' -

During their weeklong tour in western Canada, the Taiwanese students hope to forge strong ties with various tribe from Vancouver Island. And they will be honored guests during a visit to the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

These visitors from Taiwan see the promising possibilities of a future selling access to indigenous culture to curious onlookers, particularly at a time of otherwise limited economic prospects in their community.

Meanwhile, Canada's First Nation people, as they are called here, have long known that indigenous tourism is big business.

Each year millions of tourism dollars are spent by those seeking to discover the real indigenous experience by overnighting in a teepee or communing with nature in a sweatlodge, as native ancestors have done since long before the arrival of the white settler.

The nonprofit Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (ATBC), said flourishing aboriginal tourism in Canada continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

The non-profit has under its umbrella more than 60 Indian companies that generate an annual revenues of 35 million Canadian dollars and welcome 3.8 million tourists.

The ATBC hopes to teach the profit-making potential of native tourism and to promote a sustainable, culturally rich Aboriginal tourism industry, not just in Canada, but wherever possible.

The group has undertaken a variety of information-sharing, networking, and marketing ventures, all designed to help promote First Nation entrepreneurship, to help make such communities stronger and more viable.

"Being in contact with aboriginal entrepreneurs who succeed like the ATBC it instills in our students pride in being aboriginal," said Iwan Perine, who teaches indigenous culture and tradition at a university in Taiwan.

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