First Nation tourism businesses stay afloat, but summer tourist season sunk by highway closures | Ha-Shilth-Sa Newspaper

First Nation tourism businesses stay afloat, but summer tourist season sunk by highway closures

Tofino, BC

West coast tourism businesses have been dealt yet another crippling blow after the Cameron Bluffs wildfire road closures kept tourists from venturing to the west coast.

“A typical summer would mean 100 percent occupancy for us but we’ve averaged about 35 percent occupancy this summer,” said Maria Clark, Assistant General Manager at Tin Wis Best Western Resort. Tin Wis has 81 rooms that had just completed expensive renovations as Highway 4 closed due to the wildfire.

The Cameron Lake wildfire, discovered June 3, 2023, burned 229 hectares of forest on a steep mountain side on Highway 4, east of Port Alberni. Beginning June 6, 2023, Highway 4 was closed until June 23 as the fire burned. From there, the highway was closed intermittently, for extended periods of time, as work was carried out to make the highway safe. The road fully re-opened to two-way traffic on Friday, September 1.

“It’s been a tough season,” said Maquinna, Lewis George, Ahousaht Tyee Ha’wilth. He owns House of Himwitsa Native Art Gallery & Gifts, House of Himwitsa Lodge and a smoked fish sales business out of his beautiful building on the Tofino Harbour waterfront. His lodge has five rooms but they, too, have seen an 80 percent drop in business.

Because of the road closures, Clark said Tin Wis Resort has had to honour all cancellations and fully refund their customers. “It’s been a large revenue hit amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the month of June,” she told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

According to a report in the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce blog, tourism businesses west of Port Alberni lost $44 million in revenues up to July 11, 2023. Maquinna says it’s more than $50 million according to a survey he saw from the Chamber.

In Port Alberni, there have been huge financial impacts on many businesses in a wide range of sectors.

“This is the season to generate revenue and it was severely disrupted by the road closures,” said Jolleen Dick, chief executive officer of the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce, noting that the revenues expected cannot be recovered. “There have been increased costs in doing business. For example, some businesses were proactive in planning for overnight accommodations for workers on either side of the road closures. Shipping and freight delays impacted inventory for retail and services provided in the Alberni Valley and beyond.”

Maquinna says Ahousaht Ha’wiih just launched their new Ahous Adventures ecotourism business in 2023, offering boat tours and wildlife watching opportunities.

“We were looking at big numbers,” said Maquinna, of the revenue forecast from Ahous Adventures.

But with few tourists getting through, business was down. But Maquinna noted that the downtime gave them an opportunity to work on their boats and staff development.

Over near Tin Wis Best Western Resort, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation also launched a new business, an RV Resort with quick access to the beach. According to Jamie Basset, Tla-o-qui-aht’s Economic Development Officer, putting the finishing touches on the resort came to a grinding halt when Highway 4 closed.

The province offered a long, 3-hour detour on an industrial road to bypass Cameron Lake during closures. “The logging road is rough, nobody would want to haul windows and tiles over it; we couldn’t get the materials to finish on time,” said Basset.

Still, the Tsawaak RV Park and Campground opened but it wasn’t long before cancellation calls came in. “Nobody wants to bring their RV’s over that logging road,” said Basset. “We lost a summer,” he added. Basset went to say the Tla-o-qui-aht invested ‘a fair amount’ into building the resort and it was a tough hit to take on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another indicator of Tofino’s slow tourist season is the wait for a table in local restaurants. According to Basset, you could be standing behind 50 people to get into any given restaurant in the summer but there was no problem getting into restaurants this summer. In fact, some didn’t bother to open due to lack of customers.

Both Basset and Clark spoke to the difficulty in keeping staff following the uncertainty of the highway situation. Tofino tourism businesses rely on transient workers when they’re in the busy summer season. But with so few tourists, businesses have been struggling to hang onto local staff.

“If you lay them off, you risk losing them,” said Basset. Tin Wis Resort has bumped up their deep-cleaning schedule to make work for their housekeeping staff. “They’re basically doing winter work,” said Basset.

MP Gord Johns is calling on the federal government to establish a federal climate emergency relief fund for small businesses. In a letter dated August 16, 2023, he pressed for fund that would compensate small businesses for loss of revenue due to climate emergencies like the Cameron Bluffs wildfires.

 “The economic consequences for small businesses and their employees due to the closure of the only highway to the Alberni Valley and the West Coast region of Vancouver Island has been devastating,” MP Johns said in a letter to Harjit Saijan, the federal minster of Emergency Preparedness. “I urge your consideration of a federal rapid emergency relief fund for small and medium sized businesses suffering the economic consequences of climate related emergencies such as the out-of-control wildfires in my riding,” he told the minister.

The letter goes on to say that the City of Port Alberni and the Districts of Tofino and Ucluelet and nine First Nations are only accessible by land on the provincial highway although a much longer and precarious emergency route has been established. The office of MP Johns has received many calls from constituents urging action on highways although this is a provincial responsibility.

Basset agreed with John’s idea, stating that money always helps, as long as it’s not a loan with interest. “Customers or not, we still have to keep the lights on, pay our managers and service our debts and begin marketing for next year,” he said.

He went on to say that the impacts are not just felt in the moment of the closure. “We don’t expect things to bounce back next year. People have memories, they are afraid and they might just go elsewhere,” he added.

Maquinna concurred. “There should be a little bit of help, grace time to pay loans…it would be easy for the feds to give us a tax break – that would really relieve the pain,” he added.

Maquinna went on to say that people of the coastal communities should never be put in the position of being stuck.

“It would be nice if they fixed that road, the alternate route should be paved,” he suggested.

Clark says that Tin Wis Best Western is moving forward with off-season planning as guests are feeling more at ease about traveling with the opening of Highway 4 on Sept. 1.

“We will be offering storm watching rates and, for our local Indigenous communities, a bad weather rate so that they don’t have to travel in scary weather…it will be like the Friends & Family rate,” she said.

She is in the process of looking for grants to ease the financial pressure, like the ones offered during the pandemic that helped cover payroll.

According to Dick, the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce has advocated for the needs of businesses.

“The work to measure the financial impact is on-going and we look forward to working with our partners to calculate that amount,” she stated.

“I’m just grateful we’re not going through what other places are going through, like Kelowna and Lahaina,” said Maquinna. They’ve lost businesses, homes and lives. “I’m grateful to keep going,” he said.

All of Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht tourism businesses that Ha-Shilth-Sa interviewed have survived the summer of 2023.

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