A Homalco member poses in their traditional attire. (Photo courtesy Homalco Tours)

Island tour operator keeps Indigenous culture alive through COVID-19 with virtual journeys

Campbell River based Homalco Tours is also in the process of setting up live cameras for bear viewing in Orford

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

Even though COVID-19 has caused a million-dollar revenue loss with most tours cancelled this season, Homalco Tours wanted to uphold the ethos of their brand, said their tourism development officer, JP Obaggy.

As a social enterprise, “cultural revitalization” and “cultural enhancement” are equally important for the tour operator and they plan to concentrate on that even if business takes a while to pick up momentum.

RELATED: Indigenous tourism blossoming on Vancouver Island

Spread across a series of posts, viewers were taken across the waters of Bute Inlet, introduced to a grizzly feeding near the shore, taken into lush forests, and given a glimpse of Homalco First Nation member Janet Wilson offering a strand of her hair to a cedar tree as token, before cedar pulling. This was Homalco tour’s “Instagram takeover” on Indigenous B.C.’s social media.

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

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

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

Going further, the tour operator has received funding from 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 here and our goal is to increase awareness for the research and rehabilitation efforts that we have going on,” said Obaggy.

An award-winning enterprise, Homalco Tours has been around for over 21 years. But this is the first time they’ve witnessed such a major disruption in business. Obaggy said that 80 per cent of their clientele are mostly international tourists and business dipped after the onset of the pandemic.

The 16-staff enterprise is now down to three staff members and all tours have been cancelled for 2020.

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

RELATED: Tofino mayor urges “kindness” as tourism reopens

When it comes to Indigenous tourism, restarting is a bit more complex since most First Nations are still under lockdown and are cautious about letting visitors into their territories, said Obaggy.

“There’s also more concerns around infection among First Nation communities, including Homalco, since there’s a greater number of high-risk population and elders.”

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

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