Cultural tourism — travel motivated by a desire to experience the arts, heritage, and ways of life of cultures different from your own — is the hottest field of the ever-growing travel industry, and the Cree communities of James Bay are capitalizing on the trend.

“When we started, we only had about fifteen hundred people coming in a year. Then it went up to three thousand over the years,” says Steve Cox, general manager for the Mandow Agency, the tourist office of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. Founded in 1991, the three-person agency encourages people to visit the community and to experience different facets of traditional native life— storytelling, cooking, teepee-building—along with the spectacular natural setting. “The tourism started up around hunting and fishing, and then grew into eco-tourism and cultural tourism. We’re now used to seeing people from the outside,” says Cox.

The emergence of Cree communities—and the wilderness that surrounds them—as tourist destinations became possible with the paving of the 620-kilometre-long James Bay Road. Begun in 1971, it was completed in just 420 days. Though the road was intended to service the construction sites for Hydro Quebec’s massive hydroelectric project, it also replaced the ill-kept network of gravel roads that had previously bound the James Bay communities to the rest of Quebec. “Before, they had just a gravel road connected to the outside,” says Cox. “After that became paved, more and more people started coming in.” Air Creebec, a native-owned regional airline, followed in 1982 and travel to the Cree communities became easier than ever, providing them an economic opportunity that is becoming more lucrative.

Edward Tapiatic, director of traditional pursuits and cultural coordinator for Chisasibi, is not surprised by the increasing popularity of Cree tourism. “I would imagine the tourists would like to find out more about our traditional way of life out on the traplines—how we survive and live off the land,” says Tapiatic.

But he sees a need for Chisasibi and the other James Bay communities to expand their offerings to cater to the new industry. “We are not as prepared as we could be in obtaining tourists and in taking them out on tours—out into the bay or out into the land. We should be more prepared,” Tapiatic admits. He believes the construction of a cultural heritage centre in Chisasibi, which he hopes to see completed in the coming years, will allow better marketing to potential visitors. “It will be a huge asset to our community,” says Tapiatic.

The Cree community that perhaps most fully encourages cultural tourism is Oujé-Bougoumou. The village is a blend of traditional native culture with contemporary influence and features designed by native Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal. The United Nations recognizes it as one of the world’s 50 most outstanding human settlements, giving it a high international profile. Steve Mianscum, a tourism officer and events coordinator at Oujé-Bougoumou, reveals that of the thousands of visitors there this summer many were from overseas. “There are a lot of Europeans coming from France and Sweden. They’ve heard good stuff about this community and are really curious about it,” says Mianscum. “They’re looking for a cultural exchange as well as canoeing and snowshoeing. We have a cultural department, and we also have an eco-tourism branch. We’re planning to have an eco-lodge. There are many, many projects going for tourists here in Oujé-Bougoumou,” he adds.

Along with the growth of cultural tourism, however, have come concerns about its impacts — especially on native cultures. Observers like cultural critic and author Dean MacCannell warn of potential damage to the authenticity of tourist communities, of them becoming theme parks or, in MacCannell’s words, “empty meeting grounds.” But his concerns do not seem to be shared by most of the Cree, many of whom still practice the traditions that so intrigue their visitors. “About 20 percent [of the Cree] still spend five months of the year out in the bush practicing the traditional way of life,” says Tapiatic.

And Tapiatic sees the growing outside interest in Cree traditions and history having a positive effect on the communities’ young people. “More and more youths are going out and trying to identify themselves or understand where they come from. This is our main priority—to bring them back to the land to appreciate where our ancestors came from. If they know about the land they will appreciate it, and in the future, will protect it more than ever.”

Learn more:
James Bay road
Hydro-electric project

External links:
The James Bay Road website

More from our James Bay online exclusive:
Travelling the James Bay Road
James Bay damming project: Water under the dam
Dam science
Renewable energy: Wind versus water
Climate change: Taking the heat
Cultural travel
Tolkien landscape: subarctic wilderness of northern Quebec
A conversation with Matthew Coon Come
A brief history of Cree
How to speak Cree