Maureen Weddell has a message for everyone who has wanted tourism to grow on Haida Gwaii.
“It’s here,” says Weddell, manager of the Queen Charlotte Visitor Information Centre.
While it’s only a rough estimate, the Charlotte centre had over 12,600 visits from January to August — well ahead of 2015, when about 13,000 visits were recorded for the entire year.
Weddell said visitor numbers have been rising steadily since 2013, when the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole was raising at Windy Bay.
“There wasn’t a magazine or newspaper just about anywhere that didn’t have an article about Haida Gwaii and the raising of the pole,” she said, and many people still ask about it today.
A hot, dry summer and a high U.S. dollar also seemed to help give this year’s numbers a boost.
Haida Gwaii has long been on the go-to list for many Canadians, said Weddell, and she and others told the Observer they’ve noticed an uptick in newly retired baby boomers who finally have the time to make the trip.
A younger crowd seems drawn by the islands’ wilderness, and by Haida Gwaii’s high profile in the national debate over oil pipelines.
More and more, Weddell said people of various ages come to learn about Haida culture — they want to visit the Haida Heritage Centre and Haida Gwaii Museum, the village sites in Gwaii Haanas, and the art galleries and carving sheds of Old Massett and Skidegate.
That certainly sounds on-trend to Lin Armstrong, executive director of the Gwaalagaa Naay Corporation, which manages the Kay Centre and Haida Gwaii Museum.
In all of 2015, the centre and museum welcomed about 4,000 visitors, which was double the previous total.
“This year we are at 6,163 as of August 31, and we are not finished yet!” said Armstrong.
While Queen Charlotte and Skidegate are often the first stops for tourists who arrive by ferry — BC Ferries traffic increased 10 to 20 per cent over May, June and July — all parts of the islands saw more visitors.
Masset’s visitor centre had to open a few weeks early because of extra demand, said Brittany Grosse, a journalism student who has worked there every summer since 2013. For the first time, she recorded over 1,000 visits in a month. Over at the Dixon Entrance Maritime Museum, summer visits were a third higher than last year.
Most visitors are Canadians, said Grosse, but she also met many European and Australian tourists who asking about local art galleries, North Beach, and the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary.
Now in its second year, Lisa White said the Gin Kuyaas Haida art studio and gift shop in Old Massett had another good summer, thanks in part to visits organized by the Haida House at Tllaal.
Sarah Hillis of Sarah’s Haida Arts & Jewelry said June was busier than ever, while July and August were on par with the last few years.
Along with White, Hillis said she appreciates how many Gwaii Haanas tour groups now fly visitors into the Masset airport and then take them to see all the villages south on their way to Sandspit and Moresby Camp.
“The thing is, even though June was busy, BC Ferries still didn’t have the ferry system running very well,” said Hillis, noting that if BC Ferries started its extra summer sailings in May, it would make life easier for islanders trying to book medical and other appointments, as well as spreading out the tourist season.
That’s a message that councillors at the Village of Masset plan to take to B.C.’s transportation minister during the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference later this fall.
This year’s higher summer visits were clear to tourism workers in Haida Gwaii’s smaller villages, too.
“We’ve had the most visitors we’ve ever had,” said Tina Ooishi, speaking from the Port Clements Museum.
Ooishi said she noticed quite a few visitors over 40, but also thirtysomethings and families with kids who enjoyed the museum scavenger hunt (spoiler alert— the oldest object is a tobacco pipe from 1740).
Most of the museum visitors come from Vancouver, Victoria, and other parts of B.C., she said, then Alberta and Saskatchewan. Many had read John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce and came to walk the trail.
At the Sandspit visitor centre, Lynn Scott said it’s been a “phenomenal” season.
Gwaii Haanas tours were booked solid, and visitor centre staff recorded nearly 8,000 visits by August, compared with about 7,000 for all of 2015.
Scott noted that many of the fishers flying into the west coast lodges from Sandspit also stopped in to chat about future trips.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, they’re just here to fish — they don’t do anything else’,” she said.
“But a lot of these people come back to see the islands.”