British Columbia

Indigenous tourism industry sets sights on local travellers for summer season

Some Indigenous tour operators and business owners hope British Columbians make up for an unconventional tourism season by exploring their own province this summer — but not all communities are ready to welcome visitors.

'If people want history, you don't need to travel far.'

Paddlers on a canoe tour with Takaya Tours take a break from paddling to learn about the history of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in North Vancouver in August 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Mike Willie's summers are usually spent guiding European tourists on wildlife excursions through the Great Bear Rainforest where he grew up on B.C.'s Central coast.

Not this year. The owner of Sea Wolf Adventures in Port McNeil on northern Vancouver Island and a member of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw First Nation says he was shocked to see his summer season wither away because of COVID-19.

He's one of several Indigenous tour operators and business owners who hope British Columbians make up for an unconventional tourism season by exploring their own province this summer — and learn some Indigenous history while they're at it.

"Many people travel overseas to witness and take part in ancient cultures. But ... the culture here is at least 14,000 years," he told CBC's All Points West.

"If people want history, you don't need to travel far."

Indigenous tourism was a rapidly-growing $705-million industry before the pandemic.

Now, the industry is putting the finishing touches on safety measures as it prepares for local tourists instead. 

Paul Cox, manager of the Kwa'lilas Hotel in Port Hardy, also on north Vancouver Island, says he's relying on the support of locals. The hotel recently reopened its restaurant with physical distancing and increased cleaning.

Many people flock to Tofino beaches for summer, sand and surf. But the community is on Nuu-chah-nulth territory, which is not yet prepared to welcome visitors. (Shutterstock / EB Adventure Photography)

Some communities are banking on tourism as a future driver of its economy.

The Kwiḵwa̱sut'inux̱w Haxwa'mis First Nation off northern Vancouver Island has its sights set on ecotourism after recently buying Pierre's Marina at Echo Bay.

The full-service marina and lodge in the Broughton Archipelago provides essential services and will host tourists in the summer, then provide accommodation for forestry workers in the winter. 

Elected Chief Rick Johnson said the First Nation has used the bay for thousands of years. He envisions sharing a part of his ancestors' history with the world through tours where guests can glimpse grizzly bears and 800-year-old cedar trees.

"We were traditionally fishermen and loggers," he said.

"Now both industries have made a big decline. Tourism is something we know is going to grow in the province of British Columbia."

Travellers need to do their homework, Tofino mayor says

Some Indigenous communities aren't yet prepared to welcome any visitors to their communities.

This week, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), representing 14 First Nations along 300 kilometres of territory on western Vancouver Island, passed a motion prohibiting visitors on its  land until the health and safety of its own members can be guaranteed by the province.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne and Ucluelet Mayor Mayco Noel say they're working with the NTC on what this means for summer tourism and on communication to ensure tourists understand the wishes of the communities. 

Osborne said she's confident Tofino and Ucluelet are on track to reopen once B.C. enters Phase 3 of its pandemic restart plan, but questions remain about the broader territory in Barclay Sound and Clayoquot Sound.

There will be "housekeeping rules" for tourists and some beaches may be closed off, Noel said.

"I would ask travellers to do your homework. Ask lots of questions. Be patient when you get here," Osborne said.

"It's a really good example for our society to really embrace principles of collaboration and reconciliation and continue to learn about each other and conduct tourism better."

With files from All Points West, On The Island