Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours

Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours is a world-class wildlife viewing and cultural experience tour provider owned and operated by the Xwémalhkwu, or Homalco First Nation, a people known as ‘the people of the fast-running waters’. The Homalco traditional territories run from Dent Island, just north of Sonora Island, over to Raza Passage and extending over the entire Bute Inlet. Bute Inlet is a spectacular fiord wilderness area running 80 km between peaks reaching up to 2,700 metres east of the northern end of Vancouver Island on the western coast of Canada. The Xwémalhkwu people lived for thousands of years at village sites spread throughout, near rivers along the fiord and at the mouth of Bute Inlet. Today Bute Inlet is a paradise for photographers, sports fishermen, hikers, kayakers, mountain climbers, wildlife enthusiasts, and experienced backcountry users. 

As with most coastal First Nation peoples, the Homalco thrived on rich natural harvests from the ocean. As they travelled with the seasons foraging, hunting and fishing, the Homalco people shared in sustainable resource use throughout the territory, and above all were taught to respect the sacred cedar tree. The fibres of the cedar provided the Homalco people with clothing, shelter, baskets, canoes and hand tools as well as burial boxes. 

With the arrival of non-Indigenous peoples in the mid 1800’s the Xwémalhkwu were banned from practicing their traditional ceremonies, dances and songs and were forced to burn their regalia. During the early years of colonialization the elders kept the language alive secretly.  They were moved from their traditional community locations in the late 1800’s. And then in the early 1900’s generations of children were taken away to Residential Schools. The Xwémalhkwu resisted and, despite the impacts of these schools, they maintained their connection to their cultural heritage.

The tourism business began serendipitously with the long-term efforts at Algard Creek, situated within their traditional territory, where members of the Nation proactively sought to establish a hatchery to restore the wild salmon population. The hatchery enabled the community to harvest food stocks, rear eggs and release fry to slowly re-establish the once plentiful wild salmon runs (Coho and Chum), depleted by years of exploitation and industrial activity by outsiders (largely through clear cut logging, leading to landslides that transported debris and sediment into critical spawning areas).

The increased fish population had an unexpected but fortuitous spin off in leading to a return of the grizzly bear population to the valley (with as many as 50 grizzly bears returning to the Orford River to feast on salmon). The bears’ return led to the idea to invite visitors in to enjoy the wildlife that was now thriving there, and in turn led to the creation of Homalco Wildlife Tours. The community initially created the tour company to offer safe wildlife viewing for paying guests from Sonora Resort, a nearby commercial luxury resort.

Very early on the Nation successfully developed relationships with local existing tour operators to bring visitors to Orford Bay from Campbell River, a city on Vancouver Island touted as the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. A business model was created with Campbell River operators, providing them with guaranteed times to arrive and view wildlife including the grizzlies in the Orford Valley, in the Homalco territory. This model capitalized on the tour operators’ existing marketing and sales channels and their infrastructure including professional tour boats. The Homalco business focused on providing an outstanding wildlife experience for guests of the tour operators. 

As the market demand for the fall seasonal wildlife viewing program grew, management of the Homalco business realized there was potential to expand into the shoulder seasons with a diversified experience offering.  The trained youth wildlife guides provided the solution as to how to diversify – to begin offering cultural programs. The guides were then provided with professional training to begin offering cultural tours, showcasing the Nations history, language, songs, stories and dances. The cultural tour programs proved successful and the seasonality was expanded through the spring and summer months. The fall wildlife programs were also expanded to include a cultural element as well. The benefits of this went far beyond economics as community members, typically spread across Vancouver Island and other parts of BC, began to see a reason to come home, learn the language and traditions and reconnect/travel within their traditional territory, and in doing so create a livelihood guiding visitors. 

The cultural tourism program helped reduce the dependence of the business on the seasonal wildlife viewing. In addition it increased the operating season length from 74 days in 2014 to over 150 days in 2019, leading to a more profitable business.

A total of four partnerships were created with tour operators in Campbell River and one partnership with a luxury lodge. The partnerships supply the Homalco Wildlife Tour business with guests for their fall bear viewing program. In 2019 the business also began to market and bring it’s own guests into Orford, along with the partners.

Homalco Wildlife Tours has enabled many community members to access their traditional village sites, which they have not had access to since being relocated in the 70’s. It has also led to a revitalization of the community’s cultural traditions and practices – the Homalco language, songs, dances, and stories, which are now being shared with visitors from around the world. Most importantly the business has helped to re-connect Homalco youth to their culture by training them as tour guides. The business has created four permanent full time positions, eight full-time seasonal positions, and supported 20 positions for the expansion and development of the tours. 

A small conservation fee is added to the tour price for every guest on Homalco tours, as well as for all guests on partner tours that visit the Orford Valley. These fees help to support the wild salmon enhancement program at the hatchery.

First of all the Homalco ecotourism business is a good example of the benefits of a recent ban on grizzly bear hunting, both resident and non-resident. In December 2017 the BC Government announced that a complete ban on hunting grizzly bears would take effect immediately within the Great Bear Rainforest. Research had clearly shown that ecotourism and the bear-viewing industry could be up to 12 times more important economically than hunting tourism. Many of the First Nations along the Great Bear Rainforest were integral players in calling for this ban, realizing they would be the main beneficiaries of bear viewing tourism.

The initiative did not start out as a tourism business though. Protection and restoration of the Orford Valley was integral to the vision of the Homalco people. The creation of the hatchery and the reinforcement of the riverbank protected the diminished and replenished local salmon stocks that would have been wiped out without intervention. In turn the enhanced salmon stocks have supported Grizzly and Black Bear populations in the area.

Today the Homalco Nation is committed to a program of cultural regeneration and conservation within their territory. Through cultural and wildlife tours, the Homalco are revitalizing their cultural heritage as well as protecting and restoring their territory. They are once again stewards of their traditional lands and waters, supported by a successful tourism business. 

There are seven protected areas within the Homalco territory, all important components to the area’s tourism draw. Thurston Bay Marine Provincial Park is located on the northwest side of Sonora Island in the Johnstone Strait. The park provides sheltered anchorage and recreational opportunities (swimming, fishing, hiking, paddling, explore many little beaches) for boaters traveling the popular Inside Passage. Access to the park is by boat only. The park was established in April 1970 and covers 531 hectares (320 hectares of upland and 211 hectares of foreshore). 

The provincial (BC) government and First Nations recently created an innovative new form of collaboratively managed protected area, designated as ‘Conservancies’ under the BC Park Act and the Protected Areas of British Columbia Act. Conservancies are intended to provide a variety of sustainable uses, while maintaining biodiversity and recreational values and prohibiting large-scale commercial or industrial development, and they most importantly accommodate traditional Indigenous land uses and low-impact economic development. There are six Conservancies in the Homalco traditional territory.

  • Xᵂakᵂəᕈnaxdəᕈma/Stafford Estuary Conservancy is on Vancouver Island, established in May 2007 covering 742 hectares (538 ha upland and 204 ha foreshore)
  • Qudǝs/Gillard-Jimmy Judd Island Conservancy is located on the South-Central Coast in the traditional territories of the Homalco, K’omoks, Kwiakah, We Wai Kai, and We Wai Kum Nations. The conservancy was created in 2007 and covers 45 hectares.
  • Pałəmin/Estero Basin Conservancy is located on the South-Central Coast in the traditional territories of the Homalco, Kwiakah and We Wai Kum Nations. The conservancy was created in 2007 and covers 2,978 hectares.
  • Hənʎəmdᶻi Məkola/Yorke Island Conservancy is located on the South-Central Coast in the traditional territories of the Homalco, K’omoks, We Wai Kai, and We Wai Kum Nations. The conservancy was created in 2007 and covers 39 hectares.
  • Cetan/Thurston Bay Conservancy is located on the South-Central Coast in the traditional territories of the Homalco, K’omoks, We Wai Kai and We Wai Kum Nations. The conservancy was created in 2007 and covers 230 hectares.
  • Nacinuxᵂ/Phillips Estuary Conservancy is located on the South-Central Coast in the traditional territories of the Homalco, Kwiakah, and We Wai Kum Nations. The conservancy was created in 2007 and covers 1,461 hectares.

The Homalco Nation is in the process of preparing an Environmental Management Plan and a Stewardship Plan. These documents will guide the community’s work as managers and stewards of lands, waters and resources in their traditional territory. In future the community will work towards creating Lands and Resource Guardians and Environmental Monitors. Community-based tourism will help to fund these activities.

The Nation has also invested in field research to conduct a grizzly and black bear habitat study to help understand the habitat use of the bears and avoid negative impacts on the bear population as the tour operation continues to develop.

The community is delivering a youth stewardship training program providing ecosystem-based management and wildlife protection training, including traditional territory stewardship, essential fisheries field skills certification, first aid certification, and bear aware training.

Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours will be opening a new Homalco Adventure Centre and Gift Shop and Gallery in Campbell River (located in the Discovery Harbour Mall in Campbell River), launching two new custom adventure tour vessels (Zodiac style) and introducing a new Whales, Wildlife and Culture tour for spring 2021. The new Whales, Wildlife and Culture tour will expand the expertise of the tourism team with the addition of marine naturalists, skippers and Indigenous guides. The Adventure Centre is designed to immerse visitors into the First Nation culture providing the opportunity to see and purchase First Nation art. With Covid restrictions tourism will focus on the regional and provincial markets as international travel is curtailed during summer and fall 2021.

The first lesson that can be shared is for wildlife rich destinations to focus on the longer-term sustainable benefits from wildlife through ecotourism rather than the short-term gains offered through consumptive forms of tourism. In place of grizzly hunting Homalco First Nation are building a tourism economy that honours bears, benefits the First Nation and takes their cultural heritage into account.

The second lesson that can be shared in other remote destinations with Indigenous communities is the concept of Conservancies, or Indigenous protected areas and parks. Moving towards more inclusive forms of governance for managing protected areas, by engaging local Indigenous communities in joint management using ecosystem-based management approaches that respect and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge along side scientific knowledge. In return Indigenous communities need to have access to jointly protected areas for cultural and other traditional purposes. Through examples such as the Homalco tourism business, Canada is increasingly recognising the rights of Indigenous peoples to own, manage and use lands and resources within their traditional territories, lands that their ancestors managed sustainably for centuries.

Increasingly people around the world are recognising that in order to reach 30% by 2030 Indigenous and local communities need to be engaged full partners, drawing on their historic roll as stewards of their traditional territories. Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours is one positive example of this approach.  

The Homalco First Nation is situated at the southern end of the Great Bear Rainforest, and is somewhat more accessible than more northerly communities like Klemtu, home of Spirit Bear Lodge. Last summer the Homalco First Nation decided not to operate due to Covid, and a community priority to keep the members on reserve safe. In 2020 the scaled back focus for the business was on training staff, cleaning up the camp and rebuilding essential infrastructure.

With careful planning and a rainy day fund that had been set aside the Tour Company was in a good position to pursue funding for expansion to strengthen a rebound post Covid. In the fall of 2020 Chief and Council approved a $760,000 loan (35% forgivable) made available through the Tale’awtxw Aboriginal Capital Corporation (a small business lending organization servicing the 54 Coast Salish Nations) to purchase new boats and establish the retail location in Town. The business expansion will allow the company to offer guests a full Homalco experience from check-in from Campbell River, to the transportation up the Bute Inlet, and including the tours in the Orford Valley.

This coming summer (2021) the company is marketing to local visitors from Vancouver Island and Vancouver primarily. Bookings have been reasonably strong but the ability to operate, beginning with the scheduled season opening on June 5th will be totally reliant on provincial progress against Covid.

In the meantime social marketing campaigns have led to a solid increase in Instagram followers from 400 to nearly 1100.

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