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Haida draw on culture to attract tourists Add to ...

Last summer, on a remote island off the coast of B.C., six totem poles etched with wolves, bears and ravens were raised in front of a future cultural centre. The celebration in Skidegate attracted more than 2,500 spectators and marked the first phase of the Qay'llnagaay (pronounced kie-il-na-guy) Heritage Centre that will showcase Haida culture, a key step in plans to draw tourists here.

The Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii, are a string of about 150 islands 200 kilometres north of Vancouver Island. The closest major city on the mainland is Prince Rupert -- accessible by a six-hour ferry ride. The population, concentrated mostly on the northern Graham Island, is a little more than 5,000.

The groundbreaking for the construction of the Qay'llnagaay centre is set for spring of 2003, and the community has big plans. The centre will include a performing arts theatre, a school of art where skills such as carving will be taught, an adventure tourism lodge (set to open late next year), a cultural interpretive centre, and a 28-room hotel and restaurant.

At the cafeteria, instead of hamburgers, visitors will be able to grab traditional Haida snacks such as deer kebabs, halibut, octopus, fried bread, dried seaweed, berries, oolichan grease and shellfish. After a carving demonstration, tourists will be able to buy the finished product and participate in workshops.

The intent is to introduce the world to the Haida civilization, which has endured for more than 9,000 years, but also to revive a declining economy partly based on logging and fishing.

The existing museum in Skidegate, which is adjacent to the future centre and already attracts a steady stream of tourists, is also expanding and will accommodate more repatriated artifacts and ancestral remains. With major contributions from the Skidegate Band council, the federal government and the Gwaii Trust Fund (a $60-million provincial and federal islands fund), the $19.2-million Qay'llnagaay centre is scheduled to open in 2004.

The Haida have long wanted to build a centre; in 1995, the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre Society was formed and last February residents of the islands' other reserve in Old Massett, about 95 kilometres north of Skidegate, turned out in droves to hear of a development much like Qay'llnagaay that includes plans for three longhouses, a museum, a cultural centre and a community feast house.

These centres come at a time of change for the Haida as they pursue land claims and cope with a changing economy and unemployment. With lands rich in timber, fishing and oil and gas, the Haida want to manage their resources in a more sustainable way.

And while the media attention land claims has attracted over the past few months has blossomed into many requests for and from tour operators, the land claims are not meant to propagate the centres, says Gilbert Parnell, vice-president of the Haida Nation. The centres are meant to share their culture; the land claims are meant as protection for the sea, trees and animals, he says.

The Haida's tourism efforts are part of a growing trend toward aboriginal tourism, says John Disney, an economic development officer for Old Massett.

The Haida face some challenges in developing tourism. The remoteness of the islands makes them an expensive destination. A round trip from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii costs about $560 and the Air Canada daily flight (twice in the summer) carries about 78 passengers. The other small carrier, Montair, carries about 16 passengers, but costs about half that price. If tourists come via the dilapidated ferry from Prince Rupert, it takes about six hours through unpredictable and sometimes choppy waters.

"Transportation is our biggest challenge," says consultant Fred Dabiri of David Nairne and Associates in North Vancouver, who is working on both projects.

But Parnell isn't scared of flight costs as he points out the view from his window where two eagles swoop and soar. This scene inspires his faith in tourism. Right now, killer and grey whales are passing through the islands' waters. Nestled near the mountains are islands often visited by kayakers, which are home only to wildlife such as enormous eagles and ravens.

Dabiri doesn't expect the one million visitors that visit the West Coast of Vancouver Island to reach Haida Gwaii. "It's a niche market here," he says.

Last year, about 25,000 people passed through the two visitor information centres in Queen Charlotte City and Old Massett, while another 2,000 went south to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, which is only accessible by boat or chartered flight.

But while isolation might be the island's biggest challenge -- it's also its greatest feature, Dabiri adds. "It's one of the last nice places in the world to go."

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