The Huu-ay-aht First Nation on the West Coast of Vancouver Island is moving ahead with a plan to turn the remote village of Bamfield into a tourism destination.

The Huu-ay-aht have cut the ribbon on a newly purchased motel in the village of about 300 people on the island's west coast. The business is the start of an ambitious strategy to draw more visitors to the area.

"With the dollar going down and more travellers coming to the West Coast, it's an opportune time," said Trevor Cootes, an elected councillor who holds the economic development portfolio for the Huu-ay-aht.

​Bamfield fell on hard times after an Alberta businessman bought up land and businesses in the late-1990s. Development never came to fruition. Instead, buildings fell into disrepair and businesses closed.

Huu-ay-aht ribbon cutting

Huu-ay-aht’s Tayii Ḥaw̓ił ƛiišin (hereditary chief Derek Peters) at the ribbon cutting at Huu-ay-aht’s new motel in Bamfield. (Huu-ay-aht First Nations)

In January, the Huu-ay-aht purchased 11 properties in the community, which falls inside the traditional territory of the First Nation. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The goal is to develop a thriving tourist economy in Bamfield over the next three to five years, Cootes said.

"Being a treaty nation, we have our own ability to make decisions, go into business for ourselves and have the freedom to do it," he said. 

"But in signing our treaty we also need to be self-sustaining, and in order to be self-sustaining we need to build a strong economy within our traditional territories."

The Huu-ay-aht purchase includes several other businesses that will offer accommodations, but require some renovations before going into operation, an unused airport, and various properties slated for future development.

The purchases add to existing businesses the Huu-ay-aht operate in Bamfield, including a campground and gas bar.

Lifeline for Bamfield

The investment by the Huu-ay-aht is focused on economic development for the nation, but there's hope it will also turn things around for the community of Bamfield.

"Over the years the community has declined in population. We'd like to keep our school. We'd like be able to continue the health services that we have," said Keith Wyton, the area director for the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.

Bamfield Airport

An airstrip in Bamfield was part of the Huu-ay-aht land purchase and is slated for future development. (Huu-ay-aht First Nations)

The investment by the Huu-ay-aht has already spurred interest from other tourism operators, Wyton said. A company that operates sea planes on Vancouver Island is now flying to the community, and a company that offers passenger ferry service just purchased a new vessel.

If the plan to grow Bamfield tourism is successful, Wyton said there's hope the province will consider upgrading the gravel industrial road that provides the only access by vehicle.

"We would like to see the road turned into a provincial road rather than a private industrial road so that it meets the standards of the rest of the road network in the province that the public travels on," he said.

Cultural tourism potential

The Huu-ay-at also hope to tap into the growing aboriginal cultural tourism sector by offering visits to an ancient village site near Bamfield called Kiix?in.

Kiix?in, ancient Huu-ay-aht Village

A historic photo of the remains of the chief’s house at Kiix?in, an ancient Huu-ay-aht village. There are plans to offer cultural tourism visits to the site. (Huu-ay-aht First Nations)

The registered historic site contains remains of a traditional chief's house. Some artifacts from the site are on display at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. 

"It's a good time for us to look at ways of protecting those areas, but at the same time providing an experience for guests to come and experience Huu-ay-aht culture," Cootes said.