Travelers Look for Deeper Experiences With Native Cultures

For visitors to New Zealand, the chance to see a haka, the ceremonial Maori dance, has long been as much a part of the country’s allure as its glaciers, geysers and glowworm caves.

But increasingly, instead of merely catching a cultural performance en route to New Zealand’s Fiordland, travelers are lingering longer and going deeper, seeking out more immersive ways to engage with the country’s Indigenous heritage.

“We’re seeing a shift from the checkbox mentality to a hunger for deep, transformative experiences,” said Sarah Handley, the general manager for North America and Europe at Tourism New Zealand, the country’s tourism marketing agency. “It’s not just about witnessing a haka; it’s about understanding the meaning and stories behind it.”

That shift is happening not just in New Zealand but around the world, particularly as more travelers want to experience the planet’s natural wonders by way of the people and traditions indigenous to those places.

“Put simply, travelers want more out of their vacations,” said Jamie Sweeting, the vice president of sustainability for the tour company G Adventures, whose itineraries include overnight accommodations ranging from an Indigenous-owned eco-lodge in the Ecuadorean Amazon to a community homestay with Indonesia’s Tengger tribe. Especially since the pandemic, Mr. Sweeting said, people are looking for “experiences that help them change the way they see the world.” Indigenous-owned and -led tourism experiences — a sector of the global tourism market valued at $40 billion in 2022 and forecast to grow to $65 billion by 2032 — are increasingly the answer.

On New Zealand’s North Island, visitors hungry for culturally immersive wilderness experiences are spoiled for choice.

In the Bay of Plenty region, which has a long tradition of Maori-guided nature tourism, the Maori-owned Te Urewera Treks offers single and multiday guided wilderness walks through the Te Urewera rainforest, the first in the world to be granted legal personhood status (meaning the forest now effectively owns itself) in recognition of the traditional Maori worldview. (One-day guided treks start at 240 New Zealand dollars, or about $151; a three-day trek costs 1,050 dollars, with nights spent camping or in New Zealand’s famous backcountry huts.)

About an hour’s drive north, Kohutapu Lodge (double rooms from 100 dollars) offers a similarly immersive alternative to some of the packaged Maori cultural experiences available in nearby Rotorua, whose dinner-and-a-show Maori evenings have helped it live up to its nickname RotoVegas. In contrast, Kohutapu encourages guests to embrace slow travel, Maori-style, with an extensive menu of cultural, nature-based and culinary activities highlighting both the region’s Indigenous history and contemporary Maori life.

“We invite our visitors into our community, our home, our way of life — and it is very natural,” said Kohutapu Lodge’s co-owner, Nadine Toe Toe. Travelers are “seeking more authentic and intimate experiences, out of the main centers, that are based on real life.”

“The pandemic absolutely jolted our visitors into a new way of thinking about travel,” she said.

Jerry Whalen, 72, visited New Zealand with his wife, Cyndi, on a Viking Ocean Cruise in December 2022. Opting for a ground excursion on the North Island with a Maori cultural focus, the couple spent a full afternoon at Kohutapu Lodge that included a guided hike to view ancient Maori cave paintings, a traditional meal cooked over hot stones and an intimate haka demonstration. The Whalens were so taken with Kohutapu that they’ve kept in touch with Ms. Toe Toe and hope to return for a longer stay.

Across the Tasman Sea, Australia is also witnessing a surge in demand for Indigenous-led travel. Mark Olsen, the chief executive of Tourism Tropical North Queensland (the majority-Indigenous region that includes the Great Barrier Reef), has observed an uptick in both the number of domestic travelers participating in Indigenous experiences and the average number of nights spent doing so. Tourism Australia, the Australian government’s tourism marketing agency, has recorded a similar trend among international visitors over the last decade.

The intersection of tourism and Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, hasn’t always been so promising. In 2017, Australia made international headlines when it banned people from ascending Uluru, the iconic monolith in Australia’s Red Center that’s also one of the country’s most visited tourist attractions. But the ban came only after decades of pleas from the local Aboriginal community not to climb the site, which is sacred to them.

Today, though, in addition to a growing number of Indigenous-owned-and-operated tourism businesses in Australia, Mr. Olsen noted that even large tour companies are making efforts “to involve traditional owners in their tours.” Operations like Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel, “which employs Indigenous guides who share their culture and stories during the trip to the Great Barrier Reef” (day tours from 219 Australian dollars, or about $150), are a rebuttal to the notion that Australia’s natural sites and Aboriginal culture should be experienced separately.

These developments in the travel industry reflect a larger societal trend. “Globally, there has been a push to recognize Indigenous rights and attempts are increasingly being made to right past wrongs,” said Julia Albrecht, an associate professor in the Department of Tourism at New Zealand’s University of Otago.

“In New Zealand,” Dr. Albrecht noted, “the last two governments have greatly supported all things Maori, not only in narrative, but also in policy.” In November, Tourism Industry Aotearoa, the main association representing the country’s tourism businesses, released its Tourism 2050 strategy, which calls for “integrating kaupapa Maori (Maori approach) and matauranga Maori (Maori knowledge) into the tourism industry.”

Such initiatives, together with the creation of Indigenous networks like the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance and greatly enhanced visibility through both conventional marketing and social media, have created “a case of supply and demand complementing each other,” said Anna Carr, an associate professor and colleague of Albrecht’s at the University of Otago.

Like G Adventures, the tour operator Intrepid Travel is expanding its Indigenous tourism portfolio, introducing new Indigenous experiences in the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 2024. A constant, said Sara King, the general manager of purpose at Intrepid, has been the “particularly emotive” feedback from customers.

Erin Rowan, 32, of Boulder, Colo., chose British Columbia’s Klahoose Wilderness Resort, owned by the Klahoose First Nation, for her honeymoon this past September. In Canada’s remote Desolation Sound, the resort offers “all-inclusive wildlife and cultural tours,” including Indigenous-guided grizzly bear viewing during the annual salmon run (three- and four-night all-inclusive stays starting at 2,495 Canadian dollars, or about $1,824, plus taxes and fees).

Ms. Rowan and her husband, Matt Allegretto, wanted a trip “that felt intentional and in line with our values,” and after coming across after Klahoose Wilderness Resort “on TikTok, of all places,” Ms. Rowan said, “a lightbulb went off.”

“We felt welcomed into a world that is completely different from our day-to-day,” Ms. Rowan said, adding that she and her husband hope to make Indigenous-led experiences “a major throughline of our future travels.”

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