By Nick Wells, The Canadian Press
As the COVID-19 pandemic forces remote British Columbia communities to close their borders to outsiders, Indigenous tourism companies along the coast say the federal government is leaving them behind.
Tours for Haida Gwaii are normally booked well in advance due to high demand and the quota system placed on the area. The remoteness of the region also means it has a shorter tourism high season than other locations in the province.
But the pandemic has forced tourism companies in the area to shut down their operations, with little economic relief for their owners.
“The current packages offered by the Canadian government don’t meet the need of most operators,” said James Cowpar, with Haida Style Expeditions, a Haida-owned tourism company specializing in cultural eco-tours. “Anything is better than nothing but as it stands, our industry has fell through the cracks.’’
Cowpar said all of his tours planned for May have been cancelled, resulting in $210,000 in lost deposits and preventing him from hiring staff.
Haida Style has operated for six years, turning a profit every year, he added, making this shutdown extra hard to swallow.
“It’s devastating,” said Mike Willie, the owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, a company that specializes in eco-tours around Haida Gwaii. “So far, we’re not seeing the funds that are flowing through the mainstream ways, like the Business Development Bank of Canada.”
Willie estimated he’s lost $130,000 in deposits so far _ along with the threat of losing future earnings due to a shortened or cancelled summer tourism season.
“It’s the fact of not knowing,” he said. “Like other entrepreneurs, we’re up and down with our feelings. We’re optimistic and then we’re not. We’re on this roller coaster of not knowing whether we’re going to have a season or not.’’
Indigenous tourism related business generated more than $700 million in direct gross output in B.C. with the approximately 401 companies creating more than 7,400 full-time jobs in 2017, according to Indigenous Tourism B.C.
But tourism associations say little to nothing has been done to help their sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a complete crisis,” said Keith Henry, the president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).
Indigenous tourism contributed more than $2 billion in direct gross domestic product in 2019, Henry said, after nearly two decades of steady growth.
Speaking in late March, Tourism Minister Melanie Joly said Indigenous tourism was outpacing the tourism industry across the country.
But due to the relatively young age of these businesses, combined with a lack of assets and headquartering on reserves, Indigenous tourism companies aren’t able to access services from large-scale banks and financial institutions, Henry added.
“We’re going to be completely wiped out,” he said. “The last 15 years of hard work are completely gone in a matter of weeks.’’
Henry was in Ottawa last week appearing before the Standing Committee on Finance, asking for a $557 million stimulus fund.
Tourism Minister Melanie Joly previously said the federal government is working on a stimulus package to assist Indigenous tourism operators.
“I know the sector is extremely resilient. I think that yes it was a sector that was first hit, but I think it will be one of the first to bounce back,” Joly said in a Facebook live video organized by ITAC in March.
Representatives from Joly’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the state of such a package.
Henry said he’s less optimistic for support as time passes.
“I would say the response wasn’t overwhelmingly positive,” he said about his presentation to the committee. “Today there’s been more announcements, this week there’s been more announcements and I’m still yet to hear for Indigenous businesses.’’
Businesses on the ground said they’re looking to weather the storm.
“We’re in it for the long haul. We’ll have to see it that Indigenous tourism survives,” said Cowpar. “Everybody feels trapped right now, but some would say that it’s something we’re used to living in reserves.”