Tourism businesses report good season

  • Sep. 14, 2007 7:00 a.m.

By Judy McKinley-The general consensus is: the summer of 2007 was a good season for tourists.The tourists come from varied destinations – BC, many from Alberta and other parts of Canada, the United States, as well as from further afield: Finland, Australia, Germany and France are examples. Laura Pattison, a guide with Moresby Explorers, said there’s a bit of a story behind many of the Japanese tourists they see: famous Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino took his trips and many of his photographs with Moresby Explorers and is still inspiring followers to do the same.Italian tourists are inspired in a different way, according to Wendy Riley, who runs the Moon over Naikoon on Tow Hill Road. Her Italian visitors told her that that Haida Gwaii was included on the top of a popular Italian list of places to go.A lot of tourist business is generated by word of mouth and through conventional advertising, including the popular Art Route brouchure. “I put my Art Route sign out there right beside my business sign and that seems to make quite a difference,” said artist Joyce Bennett, who runs Kung Glun Nay out of her home in Old Massett.July and August were the busy months, with many businesses reporting a slow start in June. That, says Andrew Merilees, president of the Haida Gwaii Tourism Association, may have been due in part to schools letting out late this year. This summer was much busier than last summer, which was unusually slow due to the reduction in ferry sailings after the sinking of the Queen of the North.According to BC Ferries, there were 40 percent more passengers on the Skidegate to Prince Rupert route in July and August this year compared to last year. Numbers were also up at the Queen Charlotte visitor centre, which recorded a 25 percent increase over last year in the same period.The Haida Gwaii Tourism Association, in partnership with the Northern BC Tourism Association, organized a dozen or so ‘media fam’ tours, which resulted in as many articles about Haida Gwaii. Maureen Weddell of the visitor centre in Queen Charlotte said she is already getting calls for next year as a result of some of the media coverage.Mr. Merilees agreed, saying that new media like the internet site ‘youtube’ is also playing a role. When a humpback whale calf washed up on North Beach in August, and was saved by a huge group of people, video footage of the event was posted almost immediately.”There was the National Geographic article a couple of years ago, and the whale footage on youtube has really helped,” said Mr. Merilees. The opening of the Heritage Centre and the advertising around that also seemed to have an impact. Anecdotally, almost every visitor who passed through Skidegate went to the centre.Local events add spice to a tourist’s visit. “People had so much fun and enjoyed the dinners [the seafood dinners in Skidegate] and the museum,” said Ms. Weddell. They also enjoyed the “Artists of the New Moon” July weekend in Queen Charlotte, which saw local artists exhibiting new work in several places, as well as performances. “They just loved the fact that they came here and there was something like that going on.”‘What’s going on’ is sometimes a challenge. Some people plan their trips here years in advance, said Ms. Pattison. Moresby Explorers takes zodiac trips to Gwaii Haanas. This July and August the company was booked solid for their four-day trips. But most people also spend time in the northern parts of the islands. Ms. Weddell said at times people can’t get on a trip because there aren’t enough people going out, especially in May and June. And sometimes, there isn’t enough for people to do who aren’t going into Gwaii Haanas, or who don’t already have a plan when they get here, and have already been to the museum. They might have to wait a day or two for a rental car. Many people ask about walks, and she thinks more groomed trails are needed, perhaps from Skidegate to Charlotte along the waterfront, and places where people can rent kayaks or bicycles for the day.Another problem for visitors is the unpredictable hours of some local businesses, Ms Weddell said.”Sometimes people [local businesses] get tired and when there’s a long weekend everything’s closed, so you can’t get a coffee on a Sunday morning,” she said.Catering to what tourists want is a tricky business. Some of the niches that could be filled are not full-time businesses, and there are already problems finding staff.”Staffing is hard,” said Kris Leach, who with husband Ralph owns and runs the Rising Tide Bakery in Tlell. She put ads up on the mainland and at cooks’ training programs and didn’t get a single call.”In the end, people walked through the door that saved us,” she said. The summer business is “extremely intense”, she said, “we produce everything we can and it’s gone at the end of the day.” They had times in the summer when there were line-ups right around the bakery. Still, people didn’t mind waiting, and in fact took the time to talk to their neighbours in a way that they might never have if they were in their home cities. Which raises the issue of how much change can happen while still maintaining what many visitors feel is the charm of Haida Gwaii – that it is away from it all, that there aren’t many people, that it is slower and quieter.While visitors seem to want more activities when they first come, “people are scared that we could become another Tofino,” said Ms. Riley.Toni Smith runs Rapid Ritchie’s Rustic Rentals on Tow Hill Road, often the first stop for many people who end up returning to the islands or coming here to live.”They are afraid we’ll lose the pristine nature, that they’ll drive along Tow Hill Road and see lawns and little fences,” she said.Ms. Weddell laughs when she thinks of visitors who, when she first sees them, are talking “a 100 miles an hour”. When she sees them three days later they are slow, taking their time, talking to people.Ms Riley said the same kind of shift is reflected in response to her ‘to go’ cup policy – she has no cups. “Ninety percent of people have a travel mug in their car,” she said. “When they hear I don’t have one they have to decide, do they get their cup or do they come in and sit down, take in the atmosphere.”In a way, in the end, the tourist business comes back to locals – the locals who stay to run the businesses, and the locals who support businesses year round. While running an enterprise during the peak tourist season can make for a viable business, for many this isn’t entirely true without the support of locals, and money’s not the biggest reason why business owners do what they do. Ms. Riley, Ms. Leach, Ms. Smith all echo the same sentiment: “I love what I do.””I work with amazing people who believe the same things are important as I do” said Ms. Riley, “and I meet amazing people.””Locals hide out when it gets busy,” said Ms. Leach. “They just come in, get what they need and leave, but we get good support for our business year round, all over the island, not just in Tlell.”Grace Pelton of The Longhouse Gift Shop in Sidegate attributes, along with owner Rose Russ, a lot of their success to local patrons who are loyal, who balance out their business.And at the end of the summer, there are the memorable moments. “Saving a whale was an extraordinary connection to nature for those who were fortunate enough to be there at that moment,” said Ms. Smith. For Joyce Bennett it was the couple from Calgary that ordered a wall hanging two years ago. “They came to see me to tell me how pleased they were with it, how it occupied a prominent place in their home, and when they come here they will always come to visit me. That was pretty special.”

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