National experts to discuss Indigenous tourism in Sitka this spring

The Naa Kahidi Dancers are an example of “regenerative tourism,” according to Visit Sitka director Rachel Roy. (Courtesy Sitka Tours)

The Heritage & Cultural Tourism Conference is returning to Sitka this spring. The three-day event brings together visitor industry leaders from across the country to share ideas about tourism best practices in Indigenous communities.

Sitka Chamber of Commerce and Visit Sitka! executive director Rachel Roy says the annual conference started about 20 years ago, paused briefly, and then resumed as demand grew for authentic and meaningful cultural experiences.

“And how do you do that in a really good way that honors your community, that honors the people that you’re telling the stories about, and that you are able to really make it a positive experience for everyone?” Roy asked.

The conference examines how other areas of the country manage cultural tourism. Malia Sanders, the executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, is the featured speaker on Day 2 of the program; on Day 1, the keynote will be delivered by Keith Henry, CEO of Indigenous Tourism of Canada.

Rachel Roy says Alaska – especially Sitka – could take a lesson from its immediate neighbor in striking an appropriate balance in heritage tourism.

“How has Canada done this?” asked Roy. “They’ve really harnessed their First Nations from the beginning. So I think it’s a really cool story for us to look to, and to learn about what other folks are doing. And I think it’s a really relevant conversation right now for our community.”

An important idea for Roy is “regenerative tourism,” or developing practices and infrastructure that enrich both the visitor and local community. She points to Sitka’s extensive trail system as an obvious example, and to one less obvious example: The Naa Kahidi Dancers. The group has been performing in Sitka for almost 30 years, and continues to be a top visitor draw.

Roy says it’s also a powerful experience for the group’s young performers.

“What it does for the kids is they’re learning the songs and dances of their clans,” Roy explained. “They’re learning how to present themselves, and how to speak to an adult. When an adult asks what their robe is made of, or what the story is of their clan symbol. They also learn job skills: They learn how to go to work on time, how to come dressed ready, how to make sure you have your uniform, how to turn in a timesheet. And so my nine year old son, a couple of summers ago, he came in and worked every day. And he knew when his show was what time he had to be there. He lined up rides with his grandpa. And he came home with paychecks that he was able to buy, you know, school clothes and have a little fun in the summer. That is regenerative tourism.”

The Heritage & Cultural Tourism Conference is a place for visitor industry veterans to network, or for someone new to the industry to start learning about the role cultural heritage can play in their business. And Roy is hoping to one day share the wealth, and rotate the conference around the state.

“So I think this conference has a lot of opportunities to really make a great impact within the state of Alaska, and it already is,” she said. “There’s just really important conversations that are happening now that were struggling to happen 20 years ago.”

The Heritage & Cultural Tourism Conference is March 19–21 in Sitka. See the conference agenda and registration information.

Listen to the full interview with Rachel Roy, by KCAW’s Erin Fulton:

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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