Why First Nations voices are an integral part of the travel experience

There are many reasons to support Indigenous-led experiences around the world, but recognising Earthly wisdom that has spanned generations is perhaps the most important…

Karen Edwards
28 October 2023

From the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Maasai Mara to the volcanic sands of Polynesia and Australia’s Red Centre, Indigenous peoples have long-lived in harmony with the Earth, acting as custodians for a quarter of the world’s land and 80% of the global biodiversity. Now, in a time when the effects of climate change, poverty and biodiversity loss are growing, sharing long-standing First Nations know-how is more vital than ever. 

This includes in the tourism sphere, where Indigenous peoples hold secrets of intergenerational knowledge and, indeed, intergenerational trauma – experiences that have shaped the fabric of societies, that we may experience as travellers. They can help us understand why traditions and ways of life have evolved as they have. In turn, this vital history-sharing provides an outlet for understanding and bridge-building across Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Indigenous involvement in tourism is crucial in 2023 due to Canada’s historical oppression. Nevertheless, we hold great integrity and knowledge and are determined to move forward, explains Leslie Brown, a community member from Old Massett, an Indigenous Canadian village on Graham Island in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

To listen to these stories as we travel, is one of the greatest displays of respect we can offer.


The interpretation of rock art, dating back tens of thousands of years, is just one form of storytelling that Indigenous-led tours offer (Alamy)

Keeping culture alive

For thousands of years, Indigenous people lived within the resources presented by the Earth. Their ability to successfully live off the land is a testament to how generations were willing to learn, grow and pass on knowledge from those who came before. The arrival of the first Europeans changed this – gradually forcing entire ancient civilisations, such as Australian’s Indigenous people, away from the land they lived on, communities were left fighting for survival. Such murky stories are rarely shared in tourism activities, but today’s Indigenous-led experiences offers a platform to those who deserve to have their history heard.

In Australia’s Northern Territory, artist Joey Nganjmirra leads tours to Injalak Hill, one of the region’s most significant rock art sites. Here, travellers can see artwork from varied communities, across many generations, hidden among the ancient caves and old burial sites. The only way to visit is with an Indigenous guide, like Joey, who operates from the Injalak Arts Centre in Gunbalanya. “It’s mind-blowing to think there are more than 50,000 rock-art sites in the region, dating back 20,000 to 30,000 years,” Joey confides. “I tell people about the animals depicted in the art, and how this tells a story of what communities saw on the land and conservation. This is how our knowledge and understanding spreads.”

Read next: Captivating art trails and sculpture parks around the world

First Nations guides, such as Alex Aguinda, a member of Añangu Community in Ecuador share ancestral knowledge to visitors, while income from tourism is used in the conservation of one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth (Alamy)

Safeguarding nature

For the Indigenous communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, preserving heritage and environment goes hand in hand. This is particularly prominent for those living within Yasuní National Park, a part of the upper Amazon basin that is widely known to be one of the greatest biodiversity regions, per square metre, on the planet. Brimming with millions of species of plant, insect, bird and mammal, this is a place that is vital to the survival of global biodiversity – which has declined by nearly 70% in the last 55 years.

“It’s crucial to understand that we are situated within the Yasuní National Park, which covers an extensive area of approximately 21,000 hectares,” says Alex Aguinda, a member of Añangu Community and tour guide with Anakonda Amazon Cruises. “In the past, many indigenous people were [nomads], seeking new territories where they could cultivate essential elements of our diet and find suitable places for hunting and fishing. This is how the foundation of our community took shape long before the establishment of Yasuní National Park. Now, as part of this protected area, we are working together to preserve our homeland.”

For the Añangu people, eco-tourism opportunities offered by Anakonda Amazon Cruises has brought the financial means to “learn, teach and preserve” culture. A stable income that goes straight to local infrastructure means investment in education and employment opportunities. Perhaps even more importantly, however, it presents the means to preserve essential natural habitats through generational know-how – a process western consumerist culture is still grappling with.

“We utilise our skills and ancestral knowledge once used for hunting, to now focus on conservation,” continued Alex. “We must defend our [land] against illegal loggers, deforestation, illegal hunters, and, at times, the oil industry. I believe the positive aspect of these [eco-tourism] projects lie in their contributions to preserving our culture, customs, and native languages so [we can look after our land].

“The best way to protect and support our community is by visiting the Ecuadorian Amazon and becoming aware of the magical and well preserved ecosystem.” 

Incorporating young people into the traditional arts, that visitors can also enjoy, teaches communities to be proud of their culture (Alamy)

Finding pride in heritage

Indigenous elder Uncle Eddie Rusks began teaching traditional song and dance to youth near Beenleigh, just south of Meeanjin (Brisbane) over 25 years ago. His hope was to not only get young people off the streets and invested in their heritage, but also to provide a unique insight into local heritage through the arts. 

“When I was young, culture was hidden,” Eddie explains, referring to the systemic prejudice faced by Australia’s Indigenous community. “A lot of people were afraid to come out and talk about it. Now our people are learning to speak up. It’s very satisfying; it makes us feel complete.”

Today, Eddie’s tourism initiative – the Spirits of the Red Sand performance troop – provides a wonderfully immersive theatre and dinner experience – inviting visitors to Queensland to hear about local Indigenous history, from beyond Dreamtime (creation) to colonisation of the 1800s. The concept is even more important today than ever before, following the 14 October 2023 Referendum is Australia, in which over 60% of Australians voted ‘no’ to enshrining elected representation from Indigenous communities within the Constitution.

“The Spirit of the Red Sand teaches the boys to stand up and be proud,” says Eddie. “I’ve had old fellas that have gone through the program and got different jobs, and they come back now and encourage their own kids to get involved.”

Native dancers find “authenticity and healing” by sharing their history, such as at this Old Masset regalia in Haida Gwaii, Canada (Alamy)

Building allies

While powerful initiatives, such as those led by Lesley, Eddie, Alex and Joey, are insightful for discerning travellers, they aren’t guaranteed to be adopted by all regions steeped in Indigenous history. The reason? A long-standing systemic prejudice that still plagues First Nations people across the world.  

“Despite attempts to oppress us, we continue to become courageous storytellers who can share our beautiful century-long story,” continues Leslie. “Sharing our story brings authenticity and healing.”

There are still plenty of ways for travellers to uplift Indigenous communities, by supporting businesses, enjoying immersive experiences, booking independent guides and listening to the history and cultural storytelling that is often so engrained in the places we visit. Plus, the heart of good eco-tourism is the ability to protect the very cultures and environments that leaves us so in awe of the world. So, we should endeavour to do this at every opportunity. 

Leslie agrees: “Having strong allies in the tourism industry is crucial for us as Indigenous people. Tourism specialists such as tour operators who come to our communities and include us in their tours create safe spaces for us to share openly. This helps us heal the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“Although not everyone is willing to close that gap, there are great operators who want to include Indigenous tour operators in their visits to our territory, and they deserve recognition and gratitude.”

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