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Tofino goes from hippie hangout to 'mini-Maui' Add to ...

The hippies and other refugees who first made their way to the west coast of Vancouver Island in the 1960s were in the market for a piece of paradise.

There was surf, they had boards - life was good.

As word began to spread - and the road to Tofino was paved - the coast drew more of those looking to live at a slower pace or just spend a vacation at the mercy of the elements.

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But "Tofino time" is changing: The town was recently dubbed "Whistler west," while The New York Times called it "mini-Maui."

Newspaper pictures of Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz cavorting on Chesterman Beach and rumours of celebrities scouting the area's new and exclusive properties are fuelling the makeover from hippie hangout to luxury leisure destination.

While they're happy to make seasonal cash, renting kayaks, teaching surf skills or selling salmon burgers, the hardy souls who relish the coast's pleasures year-round (including three metres of annual rainfall) are less impressed with the influx of developments designed to lure investment bucks and little else.

For 20 years, Dorothy Baert has been renting out kayaks from her business, Tofino Sea Kayaking. Ms. Baert accepts that things have and will change, but she worries about a lack of planning.

"We have people buying up all sorts of land and we're not protecting certain areas - and the community is already struggling under a high level of demand on its natural resources."

Walk around downtown Tofino (all four streets of it) midsummer, and it's not hard to see what Ms. Baert is talking about.

Bumper-to-bumper RVs plow through, local campsites are fully booked two years in advance, and a room at one of the high-end resorts will set you back about $500 per night.

High property prices and taxes are squeezing lower-income residents out. New buyers are largely speculators who buy property but don't live in it. School enrolment numbers are falling, as is volunteerism - a sign that the bedrock of the community is breaking apart, some say.

"Yes, development fuels the economy," says Chris Bowers, owner of Paddle West Kayaking, at Tuff Beans Coffeehouse. "The problem is that this influx of affluence is eroding the community and gearing everything towards the exclusive market."

Mr. Bowers, who has lived in Tofino for almost nine years, says he has watched as families packed up and moved elsewhere.

Tuff Beans sits directly opposite the presentation suites for The Shore, a waterfront development with a price point that's making the locals' eyes water.

Nevertheless, the fact that it's utilizing a previously industrial space downtown instead of a precious beachfront strip makes it one of the more progressive new builds.

"The people behind it are known locally," Ms. Baert says. "They may have investors from other places, but they do have some form of connection with the community."

Showing off floor plans for the top-quality abodes, Kyle Dunn, vice-president of Sotheby's International Realty Canada, argues that Tofino is an exciting prospect for buyers.

"Our clients are interested in it because it's not a resort, it's an authentic environment."

Jim Whitworth has lived in Ucluelet, a town 40 kilometres south of Tofino at the other end of the Pacific Rim National Park, since 1971. He is so concerned about the development that he's joined the Ucluelet Community Development Task Force, a group that is pushing civic leaders to become more accountable.

As an example of the "anti-community" development that concerns him, Mr. Whitworth cites projects such as the $650-million Jack Nicklaus golf course, with units selling around the $2-million mark.

Mr. Whitworth works in tourism, renting out vacation homes, but he says the difference is one of vision and scale. He rents out existing properties and keeps them basic.

"The area shouldn't just be for the people that can afford four, five, six hundred dollars a night," he insists. "There's got to be a place for people whowant to bring their family to kayak, surf or hike."Walking around town, it's difficult to find any one local who's feeling positive about the future. Most people are holding out for an interest rate hike or a global environmental shift that makes easy carbon-fuelled travel a thing of the past.

"I'm not optimistic about it, honestly," Mr. Whitworth says. "But I'm not going to go through it without fighting back."

 

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