There are exciting times ahead for the Central Coast – Chilcotin region if a recent all-day event organized by Destination BC (once the provincial Tourism Ministry) is any indication.
Some two dozen Valley residents and representatives from various organizations and government agencies gathered at the Nuxalk Administration Building in a first-ever meeting of its kind. Destination BC (DBC), in a long-range process to develop tourism opportunities throughout the province, chose the Coast – Chiilcotin as the first of six zones to engage in this process in an area stretching from Bella Bella to near the Rocky Mountains and from Yale to near Prince George. The process will begin in the other five zones later.The Coast – Chilcotin is in “the first wave” of developing 18 plans across the province in the first “cross –ministerial collaboration” ever undertaken by Destination BC, the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and other pertinent ministries, as well as the tourism stakeholders represented by such organizations as the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association.
Outlining the plans for the day, one of the DBC facilitators said one goal of the process is to “make British Columbia the most highly recommended destination in North America”.
Development of tourism assets that are good investments for both government and business will elevate BC’s ability to compete as a premium destination while attracting investment.
This stage of the Destination Development planning is the beginning of a 10-year strategy that will involve “actionable, do-able things” and “not just a plan on a shelf”, the facilitator said. Referring to Bella Coola as “paradise”, she said tourism province-wide is on the increase, and if the trend continues, BC could see a 100 percent increase in tourism in the next 20 years.
Participants were presented with tourist numbers from various places, showing more than half of BC’s tourists are British Columbians. Americans make up 18 percent and Canadians from outside BC an equal number, while three percent are Europeans and five percent Asians. As their economies grow and people find they have greater disposable income, China and India are opening up as tourism markets, while popular destinations such as the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu have become overrun with tourists.
Represented in the session were the provincial Ministries of Forestry and Parks, as well as federal Fisheries and the Economic Development Offices of the CCRD, the Nuxalk Development Corporation, and the Heiltsuk Nation. Also on hand were Directors of Bella Coola Valley Tourism as well as a number of business people and representatives of community organizations such as the Bella Coola Valley Arts Council, the Resource Society, and the Trail Alliance.
Throughout the course of the day, participants worked in small groups addressing topics such as the type of tourist they would want to be attracted to the area, what types of experiences visitors would want to have and what they might value. For instance, the typical tourist to this area wants an experience off the beaten track, wants to travel independently, and wants a unique experience. It was noted that the tourist might want to “connect spiritually” with the landscape “by disconnecting their cell phones but becoming more connected”.
The groups considered deficiencies in tourism capacity, identifying various shortfalls such as a shortage of accommodation, directional signage, roadside interpretive signage presenting the history, geography, and natural history of the area, equipment rentals providing bicycles, kayaks, and fishing tackle. A shortage of trained workers in the tourism industry was noted, and DBC representatives pointed out that they offer programs in hospitality. Infrastructure improvements were suggested, such as parking at the Harbour, installation of Wifi hotspots for Internet access, and dropoff opportunities for rental vehicles
Ideas were generated for areas needing expansion such as the capacity for mountain biking, and groups discussed what area residents do NOT want such as franchised fast food restaurants, huge cruise ships, trespassing on private land and on traditional First Nations territories. Participants said “we do not want to compromise our local identity” and “we don’t want to change where we live”. Care must be taken not to “build a product that receives a hostile reaction from the local population.” One participant said: “What we do must support the community as well as tourists.” Another noted: “Youth don’t have a lot to do here. By getting them involved, you improve both tourism and their lives.”
First Nations representatives (Nuxalkmc and Heiltsuk) visualized promoting traditional foods and medicine and healing practices, offering package tours, and traditional sea canoeing. They noted that historically, older generations have resisted having tourists on their traditional lands, one noting that “People of the older generation don’t want this to happen, but our own generation is living in poverty. We have to be educating about how we want to be seen.” She added that “visitors are welcome, but they have to respect that we are on the map.”
They pointed out that construction is underway for a Nuxalkmc-operated restaurant in connection with the Bella Coola Motel now operated by the Nuxalkmc on the former site of Q’umk’uts on the Bella Coola Townsite. It is slated for completion before the 2017 tourist season.
All in all, while recognizing tourism as a sustainable industry, consensus seemed to be that care must be taken in guiding its development to ensure that it is sustainable, fits the community, and has the capacity to accommodate the interests of visitors.
“Tourism is revenue-positive to government because it leaves money in the community,” a DBC representative noted. One participant, not wanting to exaggerate, said the move to a new economy in the region could be the biggest change seen in Bella Coola since the coming of the corporations (logging and fishing) 100 years ago. In the context of the recent decision by the BC government to instate and promote a tourism-focused summer ferry service with direct Port Hardy – Bella Coola sailings – coupled with a push to make the newly declared Great Bear Rainforest more accessible and recognizing the economic potential of Aboriginal tourism – this may well be a slight exaggeration if at all.
Results of the many discussions in the September 21 planning session are being assembled by the DBC facilitating team and will be presented in a more formal way in the near future. In the meantime, DBC is conducting on-line “webinars” for anyone who did not attend the session but wishes to become involved in this planning process. Any Valley residents and those from the Outer Coast not present September 21 but who wish to get involved will be welcome at the next session scheduled in November. This initial stage of the planning is expected to involve a number of meetings over the course of six months to a year. Details will be forthcoming.