VICTORIA -- The pandemic has had a major impact on tourism in every corner of the country, leaving many who rely on tourism barely hanging on.

One sector, in particular, has been dealt another blow.

The future of First Nations tourism is in doubt after a drastic drop in funding for a non-profit organization that helps develop and promote the industry across Canada.

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) says it is close to insolvency after receiving only $2.4 million of the $68.3 million it was asking for in the recent 2021 federal budget.

“The budget itself had some important investments, but for Indigenous tourism, what the budget didn’t have was a clear and properly funded Indigenous-led tourism strategy,” said Keith Henry, president and CEO of ITAC.

“Due to the lack of appreciation or understanding of how important those investments were for our industry, it’s going to have some very big consequences across Canada,” he added.

The funding shortfall will put Canada’s First Nations tourism industry at risk of collapsing, according to the organization.

ITAC represents Indigenous-owned and controlled tourism businesses across the country and provides leadership in the development and marketing of authentic Indigenous tourism experiences through partnerships.

Many of the programs ITAC runs are already winding down in preparation of budget shortfalls in the coming months, affecting many First Nations tourism operations.

“We also provide a lot of funding support to our provincial, territorial Indigenous organizations,” said Henry. “The fact is today, that also will be discontinued as of June 1st if things continue the way that they are in the announcement. A lot of Indigenous staff are going to lose jobs and organizations are going to crumble.”

First Nations on Vancouver Island are concerned by the lack of funding and support from the federal government.

“Tourism is a very important economic driver for the Songhees people,” said Cecilia Dick, the cultural tourism supervisor for the Songhees First Nation. “Now we worry about our own resilience if ITAC is at risk and they are left behind in the federal budget.”

The Songhees First Nation, like many others across the country, say they rely on tourism to connect and share their culture with others, something they are proud of.

ITAC says of the 40,000 people working in the Indigenous tourism industry across Canada, approximately 3,000 are left trying to maintain basic operations until pandemic restrictions are lifted and it’s safe for people to travel again.

The organization is hopeful the federal government will restore funding before it’s too late but it says a negative tone has been set after all their efforts to secure funding.

“ITAC’s programs are much more effective than government-led programs because we know and understand the community’s reality, we speak the same language and we connect with members where they are comfortable,” Henry said. “ITAC offers a more human approach without barriers and with a timeliness and urgency that’s missing from traditional approaches.”

ITAC will continue to lobby for more funding, but at this point, it is unclear if the struggling Indigenous tourism industry will be thrown a lifeline, saving thousands of jobs across the country.