MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR
I’m always amazed at what lengths tourists are willing to take for a vacation. Whether it’s waiting in a lineup for hours and hours, sleeping overnight in a Walmart parking lot, driving in the middle of the night, or taking long detours over logging roads, it seems travellers will stop at nothing to ensure they get to their holiday destination.
For those of us that live and work on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, we’re encouraged that thousands of visitors are willing to find their way around the multiple closures of Highway 4 to get to Tofino and Ucluelet come hell or high water…or in the case of my hometown of Tofino…drought.
During the pandemic, our community and region faired very well compared to the rest of the province and country. Many businesses enjoyed record revenues and visitation despite travel restrictions and other measures that hurt operators and communities throughout BC.
Yet, I would hate to think that it’s our turn to suffer a bit since no one deserves to go through such hurdles but that’s what it feels like. It started with the fire at Cameron Lake on June 6th that closed Highway 4 to Port Alberni, Tofino, Ucluelet and the surrounding First Nations reserves for two and a half weeks. The only access to the area was from Duncan through the Cowichan Valley, onto a logging road that tested even the best of drivers for the better part of two hours, then over a very dusty and washboard surfaced road (which is marginal at best on a good day) to Bamfield. Upon arriving in Port Alberni, virtually every car was in dire need of a thorough washing. My guess is that the Port Posh Car Wash generated more revenue in those two and a half weeks than they normally do in 12 months.
The economic impact of the highway closure was calculated for both Tofino and Ucluelet and reported to be over $44 million in lost tourism revenue for both communities in the month of June alone.
For the remainder of the summer, Highway 4 is closed from 9:00 to 11:30 am and from 1:30 to 5:00 pm weekdays, and open to single lane alternating traffic overnight and on weekends. We’ve also had a series of unscheduled lengthy closures due to rain and wind.
More recently, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure threw us a curve ball by closing the road for two full days to get rid of fridge-size boulders hanging precariously on top of Cameron Bluffs for serious rock scaling work. To be fair, we understand the need for this project in the context of motorist safety but many businesses found themselves scrambling to fill the jobs of employees that couldn’t get to work, sourcing alternate supplies and/or delivery dates for goods needed, and looking after guests who were stuck with no place to go or stay.
Fortunately, and much to our surprise, the mass cancellations didn’t occur as anticipated and visitors persevered, somehow finding their way in and out of Ucluelet and Tofino.
Now that the peak summer season is behind us and the highway is open, (visit here for updates) the tourism sector on the West Coast of Vancouver Island will conduct a post-mortem on the situation to provide recommendations to government via the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, TIABC and its partners on how to mitigate similar issues in future.
I think many would agree that moving 30,000 people a day through our communities cannot continue without a permanent secondary access road, even if only for emergencies like the ones that occurred this summer. We cannot afford to be stranded in the event of another natural disaster without an alternate route that doesn’t require a 4×4. I truly hope that the province will consider the recommendations of the local and collective tourism sector to avoid a repeat of the setbacks this year.
I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that this summer was a one-off for us. In the meantime, I tip my hat to the resilient and determined visitors who managed to find their way here to enjoy everything that Tofino and the surrounding area has to offer. We look forward to welcoming you back under better circumstances.
On a related note…I salute all the tourism operators in the Thompson Okanagan region who stepped up to help evacuees and displaced visitors with accommodation, transportation, food and other necessities during the intense wildfires over the past week. Again, our industry played and continues to play a pivotal role in helping people during their biggest time of need. At the same my heart goes out to our tourism colleagues that lost their businesses.
Finally, I commend the province for rescinding the travel restrictions in much of the region after the most immediate danger to residents and visitors had passed. TIABC and many of our partners are working with government and stakeholders to support tourism businesses as they recover from this crisis.