Island tour

Island tour operator keeps Indigenous culture alive through COVID-19 with virtual trips – Vancouver Island Free Daily

Through Instagram stories, viewers spent three days on the Orford Bay reserve — the traditional land of the Homalco First Nation — with Campbell River Indigenous tour operator Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours.

Even though COVID-19 caused a million-dollar loss in revenue with most tours canceled this season, Homalco Tours wanted to maintain its brand ethos, said its tourism development officer, JP Obaggy.

As a social enterprise, “cultural revitalization” and “cultural enhancement” are equally important to the tour operator and they plan to focus on this even though business is slow to pick up steam.

Spread over a series of posts, viewers were taken through the waters of Bute Inlet, introduced to a grizzly bear feeding near the shore, taken to lush forests and caught a glimpse of Janet Wilson, a member of the Homalco First Nation , offering a lock of her hair to a cedar as a token, before pulling the cedar. This was the “Instagram takeover” of the Homalco tour on Indigenous BC social media.

Informative and visually appealing, these cultural stories have been the foundation of Indigenous tourism, Obaggy said.

Even though the pandemic has disrupted the business side of tourism, as a social enterprise Homalco Tours will continue to promote First Nation culture, he said.

“We can’t do our cultural offerings in person this year, so we’ve decided to go virtual,” Obaggy said.

Going a step further, the tour operator received funding from the Island Coastal Economic Trust’s Small Capital Restart funding stream to install live video cameras in Orford Bay for bear viewing. The project will also work closely with a wildlife biologist to provide a more interactive and personal experience for viewers.

“Through the broadcast people can still see the bears even if they are not there and our goal is to increase awareness of the research and rehabilitation efforts we are carrying out,” Obaggy said.

An award-winning company, Homalco Tours has been in business for over 21 years. But this is the first time they have witnessed such a significant disruption to their activities. Obaggy said 80% of their clientele are mostly international tourists and business plummeted after the pandemic began.

The 16-employee company is now down to three employees and all tours have been canceled for 2020.

Unlike other tour operators in the province who are slowly restarting, Obaggy said it’s not the same for Indigenous tour operators.

When it comes to Indigenous tourism, the restart is a bit more complex, as most First Nations are still in lockdown and are cautious about bringing visitors into their territories, Obaggy said.

“There are also more concerns about infection among First Nations communities, including Homalco, as there are greater numbers of high-risk people and elders.”

While communities are still cautious, the tour operator will continue to leverage cultural stories until travel in traditional territories is back on the cards.

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First Nations Tourism