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With the borders closed and residents of other provinces actively discouraged from coming to British Columbia because of the pandemic, tourism operators face the loss of the bulk of their income this year.Courtesy Destination BC/BC toursim

The B.C. government is putting the final touches on a marketing campaign designed to persuade residents to spend their vacation dollars exploring their home province, an effort to salvage something of the province’s $20-billion tourism industry this year.

But first, the province has to persuade host communities to welcome visitors again, and to determine whether the activities that are featured in the campaign will be open for business. With the reopening potentially just weeks away, that work is still not done.

With the borders closed and residents of other provinces actively discouraged from coming to British Columbia because of the pandemic, tourism operators face the loss of the bulk of their income this year. To mitigate those losses, Destination BC has produced a draft plan for a June campaign launch if the provincial health officer approves of the next phase of the province’s restart.

The campaign, according to the plan obtained by The Globe and Mail, is to feature “awe-inspiring footage of bookable experiences” featuring whale and grizzly bear watching, Indigenous culture and culinary adventures.

But tourism operators are worried that Destination BC isn’t doing the preparation needed to ensure that what it promises in its marketing will match reality.

At the gateway to the Bella Coola Valley, the Nuxalk Nation on B.C.’s Central Coast is maintaining a highway checkpoint around the clock to discourage visitors.

“Right now, we do not want any tourists or non-residents to come into our community. We’re too vulnerable right now, we have no medical supplies,” said Wally Webber, who is both the elected chief and a hereditary chief. The community of 3,000 people is equipped with one adult and one pediatric ventilator, and their health director, Kirsten Milton, has spent the past two months pleading for more medical support, to no avail.

The Nuxalk are not alone: Around the province, residents in remote and rural communities fear visitors could spread COVID-19 and easily overwhelm limited health resources. The proposed marketing campaign would promote exploring ancient Indigenous art, but a large contingent of coastal First Nations have declared their communities are closed.

On Thursday, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry suggested she may recommend changes to allow British Columbians to travel within the province for recreation starting in late June. Lisa Beare, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, said Dr. Henry’s advice, which has helped B.C. curb the spread of COVID-19, carries significant weight with British Columbians.

“Once Dr. Henry encourages people to explore the rest of the province, a lot of comfort will come from those words," Ms. Beare said. She acknowledged that won’t assuage everyone. "Certainly there will be communities who won’t be ready to welcome visitors yet. And, of course, we will respect those communities’ wishes.”

Rick Snowdon has run a sea kayaking business, Spirit of the West Adventures on Quadra Island, since 1997. He estimates his business will decline by 95 per cent this year, and even to maintain that fraction of customers will require careful engagement with his neighbours.

He says he believes the province needs to help build that social licence, which largely doesn’t exist right now.

“There are lot of vocal opinions about keeping people away,” he said. “We’re reaching out to guests to make sure they are educated on what’s available and what to expect when you go to the grocery store, how people are expecting you to behave, so it can be a friction-free experience as visitors interact with the community.”

British Columbians have been asked since mid-March to avoid non-essential travel, and there is now pent-up demand to hit the road. When B.C. opened up online booking for camping on May 25, the site crashed because it could not manage the number of access requests. Still, 42,000 campsites were booked on the first day.

With that in mind, businesses in the popular resort community of Tofino are preparing to welcome visitors again as early as June – but it won’t look anything like previous years.

At the privately owned Surf Grove campground, only RV campers with their own washrooms are able to book a spot. They must be from B.C. Guests are asked to come with their own supplies and groceries to avoid congestion in local stores, and they have to agree to adhere to COVID-19 precautions, which will include checks by staff that physical distancing is being maintained.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne was vocal in asking tourists to stay away this spring, and she said they will be welcomed back cautiously, once the province approves recreational travel.

“Our community generally is very understanding of the fact that tourism is our bread and butter and we’re really proud to host people and give them a terrific experience,” she said. “And like any other place, there’s some anxiety about COVID-19 transmission rates and understanding what might happen if people start to move in and out of the community.”

The restart plan has highlighted pre-existing tensions between regional tourism marketing organizations and Destination BC.

Ms. Beare commissioned a report last year to try to navigate the long-running conflict, and she is now working to implement some of the recommendations in consultant Dan Perrin’s findings. Mr. Perrin found that B.C.'s tourism marketing had become too centralized in the hands of Destination BC, and that the province, not the Crown corporation, needed to take responsibility for setting tourism policy.

That is critical now, when a centralized marketing campaign may miss important local cues. One of the iconic images from the proposed marketing campaign is an orca leaping out of the water. But whale watching tours may not be a ready option this summer.

“We will, in all likelihood, be the last ones back in business in any sort of meaningful way, which we don’t expect will happen this year,” said Dan Kukat, owner of the province’s oldest whale watching tour company, SpringTide Whale Watching and Eco Tours. He doesn’t see locals replacing the out-of-province visitors who normally make up 95 per cent of his clients, but he says B.C. has to try this.

“This is not a solution. This is not going to save tourism, this is not going to save any business. However, it is the only first step. There really is no other logical choice for a first step," he said. “We need to go through this progression and the quicker we can go through it safely, the more likely it is that the losses will be less for everyone.”

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