Coronavirus pandemic leaves northwest B.C.’s Indigenous businesses at risk of collapse in tourism downturn

Nisga’a Nation has worked for years to make the Nass Valley a tourism destination, but now business owners are scrambling to stay afloat in wake of COVID-19

TERRACE, B.C. — Travel restrictions around the world have brought the tourism industry to a halt and Indigenous-led businesses are predicted to be among the most vulnerable to collapse in COVID-19’s damaging path, according to the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

The Nisga’a Nation in northwestern B.C. has been working for years to make the Nass Valley a travel destination, with hopes to make tourism a key economy driver. Instead, the Nisga’a have been met with an unexpected blow of cancelled bookings.

“COVID-19 has a huge impact already. I’ve had a few calls from entrepreneurs in our tourism industry asking if the [Nisga’a] Nation is going to help them out because of loss of bookings and clients,” says Bertram Mercer, manager of economic development for the Nisga’a Lisims Government.

Mercer works with Nisga’a businesses in the Nass Valley to incorporate them into tour packages and make them “market-ready” for tourists, with the help of Indigenous Tourism BC.

But with the Nass Valley now on lockdown, business owners are devastated and scrambling to survive.

Paula Amos, chief marketing and development officer of Indigenous Tourism BC, says First Nations businesses in the tourism sector are feeling the weight of this pandemic on their livelihoods, which are already vulnerable to other social pressures.

“We worked really hard over the last 20 years to to get Indigenous tourism on the map and have communities see tourism as a great economic driver [instead of industry],” Amos says.

As soon as tourism dried up, Amos says the organization scrambled to gather $300,000 to keep Indigenous-led businesses afloat. The organization pulled money from its budget for marketing and events to offer grants of up to $5,000. The organization also set up a virtual mentorship program to guide operators on how to bounce back.

“The biggest gap we’re seeing is the cash flow issues right now … especially if they’re in the rural areas,” she says. “Most of our communities are very remote.”

“This is not a huge amount of dollars but they can leverage that with any of the government programs for businesses.”

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada also announced funds of up to $25,000 in the Indigenous tourism sector. Part of the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 economic response plan for businesses include a 75 per cent wage subsidy, a tax deferral and interest-free loans of up to $40,000.

Amos predicts the effects of the pandemic this year may take up to three years to recover from. With much of the world’s economy under pressure, she says it’s unlikely international tourists will return for a while. She’s counting on “backyard tourism” to help bridge that gap.

Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park Campground

The visitor centre at Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park campground. Photo: Connie Azak / Flickr

Visitation drop of 50 to 70 per cent feared

Steve Johnson, owner and operator of Nass Valley Tours, is also worried about how long it will take to recover.

Nass Valley tours joined forces with BC Parks to establish trails and facilities to cater to guided hikes through the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park. They were fully booked and expecting to serve approximately 9,000 visitors this year, with school groups bringing in up to $400 a day per class.

Another big loss for Johnson is fishing tourists who come to hook the area’s famous steelhead trout. For decades, northwest B.C. has brought in millions of dollars through its rivers. High-end fishing tours can go up to $1,700 a day in the Nass Valley, Johnson says.

“Numbers have been going up every year, with last year as our best with visitors from all around the world,” Johnson explains.

“It’s just a matter of time before tourism is our main industry so when we lose one season like this, it takes a while to recover … our visitation will be down at least 50 to 70 per cent [when we reopen].”

Johnson and his skeleton crew are fortunate to be supported by BC Parks to continue maintaining the trails. Their main role is patrolling the sites to ensure no one sneaks into the parks or sets up camp. With no extra revenue, summer plans to build new trails and sites are on hold.

Popular Nass spots, such as the Hlgu Isgwit Hot Springs and Dragon Lake, are closed as well. In total, an estimated 12,000 visitors were expected to travel to the Nisga’a Nation this year.

Nass River

A suspension bridge crosses the Nass River in the distance. Photo: Connie Azak / The Narwhal

‘It’s very quiet here’

At the southeastern Alaskan channel to the Pacific Ocean sits the nation’s fisherman village of Ging̱olx, home to approximately 400 residents. Bonnie Stanley, restaurant owner of U Sea Food U Eat It!, started her business in 2011 because she wanted to meet new people.

“I’m very emotional and it’s very quiet here since they closed down the road,” Stanley says. “For the month of March, I lost out on about $3,000 here,” she added, noting summer is her busiest time and she can see revenue of up to $19,000 a month before she shuts down in September for the winter.

Stanley says she closed her restaurant in the first week of March as she was nervous about COVID-19 because of her old age and the community Elders, thinking it would blow over in a few weeks. As the B.C. government continues to make its predictions, she’s worried she won’t reopen at all this year.

Bonnie Stanley

Bonnie Stanley and John Moore at their restaurant in Ging̱olx, which normally thrives in the summer, but has had to shut down due to COVID-19. Photo: Natalia Balcerzak

As she lays off her employees and cuts contracts with fishermen, Stanley keeps an eye on her dwindling bank account as she pays out overhead costs for rent, insurance and her own family expenses.

She says she’s asked the Nisga’a Lisims Government if any financial aid is available but hasn’t received a reply. Stanley is aware of federal grants available for small businesses but says she needs help navigating those applications online as she’s not tech-savvy.

“This year, I can really feel it. I can see [the fear],” she tells The Narwhal, noting that reading through her guest book keeps her optimistic that her business will resume.

Stuck in the middle

Kim Morrison, who is Mohawk from Ontario, first moved to the Nass Valley 12 years ago to work as the chief operating officer in tourism for Nisga’a Lisims Government and as a business mentor for the north.

In 2015, Morrison opened Nass Valley Bed & Breakfast after spending years excavating the 172-hectare lot and investing almost $2 million dollars of savings and loans into what she saw as her dream retirement plan. She used to advise entrepreneurs to have enough emergency funds in place for three months in case of a financial crisis but now she cringes at that advice as due dates for her unpaid bills pass by.

“Are they going to come in and foreclose on my place? I spent a lifetime working to get to this place and now I’m going to lose it,” Morrison says, her voice cracking. “This is all I have. I don’t have a husband, I don’t have somebody who takes care of me. It’s just me.”

Her property is one of 28 lots in the Nass Valley that were exempted from the Nisga’a Treaty, so although she’s surrounded by treaty land she is not the nation’s responsibility and cannot ask for their help. Other bed and breakfasts, such as Vetter Falls Lodge, are operated and financially supported by the Nisga’a Lisims Government.

Despite being considered a small Indigenous business, she’s worried the high value of her assets may be used against her and is unsure if she qualifies for federal help since she doesn’t have full-time employees. With the exception of two hopeful August bookings, everyone has cancelled and she’s left with freezers of food and more than $3,000 per month in mortgage and insurance payments.

Every day, she waits on hold on the phone in an attempt to navigate these financial stresses.

“I also need to be ready to rock and roll to start up again, I have to change my whole marketing strategy too … but a lot of that depends on the Nisga’a, on when they choose to reopen,” Morrison says.

“I have to remind myself daily that I’m not the only one in this position,” she says. “It’s definitely scaring the daylights out of me, the thought of losing my entire life’s savings like that.”

Keeping tourism afloat

Liz Smaha, executive director at Kermodei Tourism based in Terrace, the closest municipality to the Nass Valley, says all northern communities are feeling the pain and need to stay connected with one another to recover fully as a region. The Nisga’a Nation is part of Northern B.C. Tourism’s weekly conference calls to discuss strategies.

She says the key thing to focus on during this time is sharing through social media why they’re still worth the visit.

“Here in the north, we live in an area I think will be so sought after… and this [scare] is going to be on people’s minds for several years to come,” she says, suggesting that Canadians will be more eager to explore after being at home for months.

“By putting all those visuals out there, maybe we’ll be the first on their travel list.”

The Nisga’a Lisims Government did not respond to The Narwhal’s inquiries regarding financial aid to residents by publication time.

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Natalia Balcerzak is a journalist in Northwest B.C., delving into the pressing issues of the region as it rapidly grows…

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