The federal government is hoping to bring more tourism dollars to First Nations communities with a new Web portal, titled the Virtual Tour of Aboriginal Canada (VTAC).   According to David Henley, acting director-general in the economic development branch of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (DIAND), the site is as much about dispelling myths at this stage as it is about drumming up business for their communities. "It’s fair to say that I think that many tourism service providers, as well as their clients…may have a perspective on aboriginal issues that is somewhat misguided," he says. The site, www.vtac-gvtac.ca, currently hosts information on 198 First Nations communities across Canada, representing a population of more than 170,000. The majority of the site’s content is provided by the communities themselves. At the time of the last census in 2001, Canada’s total population of Inuit, Metis and First Nations people numbered less than a million; in that same year, aboriginal tourism generated approximately $4.9 billion worth of business, and provided full-time employment for roughly 13,000 people. It’s a growing industry, Henley says, and "it’s going through some growing pains." VTAC’s formation has benefited from a similar DIAND initiative, the Virtual Aboriginal Trade Show (VATS), which launched in March 2004. "It’s difficult to say whether or not VATS has led directly to economic partnerships," Henley says. "But, we are seeing...a rapid increase in the number of non-aboriginal companies…dealing with aboriginal companies." For example, he notes that the fossil fuels sector is currently booming, and First Nations communities in Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan are sitting on top of oil and gas deposits. "Clearly there’s an interest in getting First Nations and oil and gas companies, for example, on the same page, because they stand both to benefit from the development of oil and gas," he says. With the rise in casino development on status reserves over the past decade, gaming is undeniably a consideration in any plan for tourism in First Nations communities; indeed, the aforementioned 2001 figures outlining aboriginal tourism’s contribution to the economy include casinos. While DIAND isn’t involved in casino development, Henley says the ministry doesn’t make distinctions between gaming and other attractions. "The content…is really driven by the communities themselves....If the community wishes to advertise what it does, and one of the things that it does do is have a casino...then that’s their decision," he says. With many reserves located in less-developed areas far from urban centres, getting the word out about tourist attractions and enticing travelers to visit can be challenging. "This Web portal was set up initially just to provide us with a way to link in communities, so that communities can now display who they are and what they do and what the economic development opportunities are" for an international audience, Henley says. The next phase, he adds, will entail more heavily promoting the tourism opportunities – everything from cultural events to hunting, fishing and camping – offered by aboriginal communities, with subsequent investment aimed at helping build tourist attractions. To outsiders, aboriginal communities seem perennially locked in a struggle between embracing the opportunities afforded by contemporary society on one hand, and preserving traditional ways of life on the other. "As they evolve, as they engage more in the economy around them, some may find themselves quite prepared to do that engagement, some may not be ready to do that as of yet," Henley says. "That’s a decision they have to make, and I think that’s a decision that people have to respect."