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Indigenous tourism blossoming on Vancouver Island

BIG READ: Islanders investing in First Nations cultural experiences to attract the world
Ed and Naomi Nicholson of Secluded Wellness Centre have opened Chims Guest House, Port Alberni’s first Indigenous-themed guest house, on their property along Pacific Rim Highway. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

Naomi Nicholson knows the allure of Indigenous cultural experiences.

The Port Alberni entrepreneur is banking on that attraction driving traffic to her new First Nations-focused guest house, the first of its kind for the Alberni Valley on central Vancouver Island.

Nicholson is one of a growing number of people and First Nations on Vancouver Island who see Indigenous tourism as an untapped market.

Nicholson and her husband Ed opened Chims Guest House in July west of Port Alberni and it has a distinct coastal First Nations flavour. Chims is the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation word for bear, which are known to wander through the back of their property.

“I’m proud of my Ahousaht background and I am a Tseshaht First Nation band member,” says Nicholson. When she married Ed, she joined the Tseshaht FN, which has unceded territory around the Alberni Valley. Nicholson’s guest house and separate business, the Secluded Wellness Centre, are located on Tseshaht land.

Nicholson has a Bachelor of Tourism Management and has taught customer service classes. She had an opportunity to travel to Hawaii, where she was mesmerized by the Polynesian Cultural Centre and the shows featuring Hawaiian culture.

“All along I said why aren’t First Nations (in Canada) doing this? I’ve been talking for years that I’ve wanted someone to do this here.”

When she realized that no one else in her region was going to step up and start offering the type of cultural experiences she saw in Hawaii, Nicholson turned to the Nuu-chah-nulth Economic Development Corporation for financial assistance and she and Ed built the guest house.

Already, Chims is attracting a global audience from AirBnB—visitors who appreciate the Indigenous accoutrements in the suite. “We’ve had people from Paris, Saskatoon, California,” she says. “We have people from Ottawa coming…we’ve had one local couple that got married and spent their first night here.”

Nicholson is breaking what she calls the stereotype that Indigenous people can’t be successful in business. She’s also welcoming the world to come and learn about her culture.

“I really feel there’s a shift in First Nations culture,” she says. “People are understanding the residential school issue. My generation, we can choose to change that cycle. There’s opportunities for us.

“Our culture has come full circle where people aren’t fearful of us, they’re curious about us.”

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) set some lofty goals in its 2016-2021 business plan to expand indigenous tourism across the country, and Nicholson fits squarely with the association’s vision. ITAC predicts more than 40,200 jobs for Indigenous tourism workers by 2021, with 50 new tourism operators at “export-ready” status by the same time.

The organization also predicts a $300 million increase in the annual Canadian GDP from Indigenous tourism by then.

Are their goals realistic? That remains to be seen. However, Destination Canada noted that the number of reported international visits reached an all-time high in 2017. The trend for tourists seems to be indulging in cultural experiences instead of simply sightseeing.

Nicholson and Joel Marriott of Owls Path Tourism in Port Alberni would both agree. It is this desire that travellers have—to immerse themselves in that experience for the connection and a deeper understanding of the place they are visiting—that drives them, as well as their own passion for sharing their respective culture.

“I found for us to have an opportunity to showcase our culture we had to do it from an angle that portrays us as a community,” says Marriott, a Cree from the White Bear Nation in Saskatchewan. Marriott and his wife, Mary Mason, have operated a First Nations-focused tour business since 2016, but Marriott says they are poised for big growth in 2019.

Marriott and Mason arrange tours that include a shuttle from the ferry in Nanaimo to Port Alberni, an attraction or cultural activity, a culinary experience and in the future, retail options. Their goal is to collaborate with tourism-based groups and operators on Vancouver Island to help bring visitors to the culture.

He is negotiating to bring a group of dancers from his home nation to the Alberni Valley next summer to host a powwow and performances. Owls Path has created a foundation that will enable them to expand cultural experiences and events in the region.

“Now I can showcase to the world how I feel about my culture,” says Marriott. “For me, it’s a passion for my culture—these are the things that create who I am.”

Nicholson’s future plans include creating a cultural centre along the same vein as the Polynesian centre she visited in Hawaii, only smaller. She wants to give people a chance to learn about her culture while generating jobs for Indigenous workers.

“The best way to help change people’s perceptions of First Nations is a (first-hand) experience,” she stresses.

The Huu-ay-aht First Nations on Vancouver Island’s west coast have taken that same dedication to sharing their culture and developed a cohesive tourism plan around it. In January 2016 the HFN purchased 11 businesses in Bamfield ranging from lodges to a motel, a pub, the Transport Canada Dock (now known as Bamfield East Dock), a store and restaurant (known now as “The Market and Café”) and a gravel airstrip.

The Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ village of Anacla is connected to Bamfield by a pathway, and their ancestral village, Kiixin, was located in the same area. It is a natural place for the nations to build a tourist economy, says Robert Dennis Sr., Huu-ay-aht’s elected Chief Councillor.

“You would be surprised at the amount of traffic on the industrial road,” he said. “We are getting a lot of regulars coming down by vehicle: there are people who are here for the West Coast Trail, I’ve noticed more (float) planes than usual flying into Bamfield.”

Bamfield is becoming a destination, and the HFN intends to answer that call.

“Our numbers are increasing,” says Dennis.

“The motel and two lodges we own are up and running; they’re running to capacity in peak tourism season. People that do come here are leaving with positive comments and expressing appreciation for their good tourism experience.”

In 2017 the HFN began offering interpretive walking tours to Kiixin. They have two tour guides who offer cultural interpretation on the tour, and it’s popular.

“Last year we had over 600 people participate in the tour and this year we’ll exceed that substantially,” he says.

The Huu-ay-aht are looking at upgrading the gravel airstrip to meet Transport Canada criteria. Other future initiatives include increased seaplane service, and maybe even a water-based option for driving tourists. “We’ve been in discussions with Mike Surrell, who runs the Frances Barkley (passenger vessel). We’re receptive to building a docking facility at our (Awis Marina) property so he can run a ferry up and down.”

Surrell of Lady Rose Marine Services purchased a decommissioned BC Ferries vessel a few years ago with the intention of refitting it for foot passengers and adding it to his fleet. The ferry is docked at Surrell’s marina on the Port Alberni harbourfront but has yet to be put into service.

Other First Nations on Vancouver Island are following the national trend and turning to tourism as an economic generator for their respective communities. The Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo oversees Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park, part of their traditional territory. The island features a pavilion hall often used for weddings and conferences, and the proximity of the marine park to Nanaimo is an attraction in itself.

The Stz’uminus First Nation has opened a hotel in its Oyster Bay Development near the waterfront just north of Ladysmith in an effort to create a year-round regional tourist destination.

Duncan’s 40 world renowned totem poles leave an impression on visitors to the “City of Totems”, but the cultural poles are only one aspect of a busy Cowichan First Nation. The neighbouring Lake Cowichan First Nation is delving into Indigenous tourism with canoe tours in the Cowichan Lake watershed, as well as a First Nations café and gift shop.

Kwa’lilas Hotel — Port Hardy

The Kwa’lilas Hotel, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island in Port Hardy, advertises itself as a premier First Nations owned and operated destination hotel. Its website describes the hotel as a “demonstration of commitment” by the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’x Nations to share the history, culture and passion for their traditional territory by celebrating it in a community space.

The Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw People have a history going back more than 12,000 years, when they lived as two separate Nations until the federal government relocated and amalgamated them from their traditional territories to their current location in Tsulquate, near Port Hardy.

Today, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations have a population of more than 1,000 and growing, and in order to create more economic opportunities, they established the k’awat’si Economic Development General Partner Corporation (KEDC).

One of KEDC’s first actions was to purchase and renovate the former Port Hardy Inn, located at the town’s entrance. It was reopened in the spring of 2017 as the Kwa’lilas Hotel (a Kwak’wala word meaning ‘place to sleep’), with 85 guest rooms, a meeting space and a curated selection of local Indigenous art. More than a year later, the hotel is still drawing attention.

“It’s meeting all of our financial goals and expectations that we set out in our business plan,” said Conrad Browne, CEO of KEDC.

There is an economic impact on multiple fronts, said Browne. The hotel has led to increased employment opportunities, with the construction and renovation of the hotel led by the k’awat’si Construction Company. More than half of the current staff are First Nations, with most of those being members of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nations.

“All the employment was into the millions worth of payroll back into our community,” said Browne.

All of this renovation work has also increased the value of the building, the land and the business, he added.

Kwa’lilas is just one of the hotels owned by KEDC in Port Hardy—the other is the Pierside Landing Hotel, which doesn’t offer the same “Indigenous” experience.

“[Kwa’lilas] is very much branded First Nations,” Browne explained.

KEDC also runs k’awat’si Tours—a company that provides Indigenous cultural experiences (such as drum-making and cedar-weaving) and locally guided eco-tour adventures on the North Island. KEDC is looking at growing the tourism aspect of their work in the future with more packaging of events and expanding into the winter months.

“For example, a hotel stay packaged with skiing opportunity at Mount Cain,” explained Browne. “There’s also high-end fishing through the fall.

“What we’ve found is that people don’t understand what all can happen here. We want to show what is on offer all year round.”

Wya Point Resort—Ucluelet

The Ucluelet Government (also spelled Yuułuʔiłʔath), located in the community of Hitacu on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is one of the Maa-nulth Treaty Nations. This 2009 agreement allowed the Ucluelet First Nation to gain control of its traditional territories, and only a few years later, the Nation opened an oceanfront site called Wya Point Resort.

“[We] talked about economic development, and from there we started looking at our traditional site,” said president Les Doiron.

The idea behind the resort, he said, is a “sustainable, modern village” where visitors can experience the “raw beauty” of the land.

The resort is located on the Nation’s traditional territories, on a former village site, and is surrounded by acres of forest. The lodges are built raised on cement stilts and reflect the art, stories and practices of the Ucluelet First Nation.

“Our people said yes—providing that we leave the smallest footprint possible,” said Doiron. “That’s just the way our people have always been. We’re not about concrete and steel. We utilize what we need, nothing more than what we need.”

The campground, luxury lodges and oceanfront yurts are all built from wood and stone and the natural features of the land. It offers a number of “adventures” on site, from whale watching to surf lessons to fishing charters. The resort was even featured this year as one of Destination BC’s “8 Unusual Accomodations.”

Since the resort officially opened in 2014, Doiron said it has created employment for the Ucluelet People, but it has also created awareness about their territory, hospitality and values.

“We want to tell the world about ourselves,” said Doiron.

NORTH ISLAND GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Kwa’lilas Hotel opened in Port Hardy in 2017, and features a curated selection of authentic, local Indigenous artwork.
Wya Point Resort is owned and operated by the Ucluelet First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island. PHOTO COURTESY WYA POINT RESORT
Naomi and Ed Nicholson have appointed their Chims Guest House west of Port Alberni with First Nations artwork, accessories and touches such as complimentary smoked salmon caught by Ed and canned by a Nuu-chah-nulth-owned cannery. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO
Joel Marriott and his wife Mary Mason have operated Owls Path Tourism, a First Nations-focused tourism company based in Port Alberni, since 2016. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Visitors taking one of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ tours of Kiixin, their ancestral village near Bamfield, will walk some of the west coast’s protected beaches and old-growth forest on the way. SUBMITTED PHOTO