By Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter HA-SHILTH-SA
When B.C.’s proof of vaccination requirement expired on April 8, it was the last major COVID-19 measure removed by the province.
And with that move, the province also peeled back the inhibitions keeping visitors away from the Tofino/Ucluelet area.
The popular Vancouver Island tourist destination is gearing up for a busy summer season due to pent-up demand for travel, but it will not without some bumps.
Tourism Tofino Executive Director Nancy Cameron said hotel occupancy is expected to be 90 to 95 per cent for July and August.
“After a challenging two years for many tourism operators, we are projecting that July and August visitation will be close to pre-pandemic levels,” she said. “We are thrilled to also see the gradual return of international visitors, although not yet at 2019 levels.”
Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation has eased its COVID-19 restrictions, and after more than two years, the nation’s Tribal Administrator Jim Chisholm said “life is getting back to normal.”
Face mask requirements have been relaxed, restrictions on the number of people at indoor and outdoor gatherings have been eased, and there is no longer a check-stop at the entrance of Ty-Histanis to monitor people coming and going from the community.
This comes as a “relief” to many community members, Chisholm said.
“We had a lot of our elders and a lot of our people that hadn’t seen their grandkids in a year,” Chisholm said. “Now, they can get back together with their family.”
While the community is “joyful” overall, Chisholm said the tribal administration and emergency management continues to closely monitor COVID-19 case counts.
The nation remains concerned anytime one of its members gets COVID-19, he said.
“We still do get the odd case, but obviously not as bad as we had it before,” Chisholm added.
Lewis and Cathy George have been operating the House of Himwitsa, a First Nations art gallery and lodge, since 1991.
While the lodge’s occupancy rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels and is already 95 per cent full for the months of July and August, Cathy said they’re keeping COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
Staff are only permitted to enter guest rooms after they’ve managed to disinfect and clean for the next visitors, she said. Visitors are not required to wear masks in the gallery, but Cathy said many put them on before entering the business.
For Cathy, it’s a show of “respect.”
“I think it’s important,” she said. “Especially in small communities like this where things can spread so easily. “
“We’re having a hard time with staff,” Cathy said. “I don’t want to put any pressure on them above and beyond what’s already going on.”
Because of the specialized nature of the art gallery, Cathy said it’s been challenging to retain staff. The business is operating with four fewer employees than normally required.
“Everybody here in Tofino is struggling for staff,” she said.
With the return of tourists visiting the area, Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce President Laura McDonald said businesses are “extremely concerned about staffing shortages and the impact on their operations.”
While a variety of factors are at play, McDonald said the lack of housing is one of the leading causes of the staffing shortages.
The District of Tofino finished construction on a 14-unit affordable housing project earlier this year and another is expected to be complete in 2023, said McDonald.
“While these projects are encouraging, they won’t on their own alleviate Tofino’s housing issues,” she said. “We still require new residential housing developments to be built in the district. The reality of staffing shortages is that businesses have to adjust and sometimes curtail services, and we are seeing this happen.”
Despite continuing to wear her mask when the art gallery gets busy and trying to protect family members with asthma, Cathy George said she “looks forward” to welcoming international visitors back to her store.
“I really enjoy talking to people from all over the world,” she said. “They just love our culture.”