Tourism operators worry ‘stay away’ messaging from Haida Nation will have lasting impacts on business

Business owners reliant on tourism dollars to make ends meet are concerned ongoing  “harsh” messaging from the Haida Nation for visitors to stay away will have lasting impacts on their ability to do business. 

The Haida Nation has made a series of statements over the past two months asking the public to refrain from non-essential travel to Haida Gwaii, in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community, where medical resources are limited. 

The last notice was published on the Haida Nation website on May 15 and encouraged residents to stay home and shelter in place and discouraged non-essential travel. 

“The messages from the Haida Nation and the leaders of Haida Gwaii have been clear and consistent that non-residents of Haida Gwaii are not welcome at this time,” Haida Nation president Jason Alsop said in a statement to CBC News.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs issued statement on April 29  echoing the Haida’s concerns and urging all levels of government to respect First Nations communities wishes when it comes to closing off access to their territories.

“First Nations populations are particularly vulnerable and could be more at risk due to their health, social and economic circumstances,” the statement said.

“The impact of a COVID-19 outbreak is of high concern for First Nations communities, especially remote or isolated communities that have very limited access to health services, hospital beds and ventilators.”

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has also recommended at her daily briefings British Columbians support the position of First Nations, reminding would-be tourists and travellers Indigenous communities are only trying to protect their residents.

James Douglas Cowpar, the owner of a cultural adventure company called Haida Style Expeditions, fears ongoing efforts to enforce travel restrictions to the area will chase away future customers. 

Cowpar and Susan Musgrave, owner of the Copper Beech House, call the Haida Nation’s messaging “too harsh.”

“I would like to think that when and if this is over, people would feel welcome here,” Musgrave said. “I think being made welcome is a very important part of going anywhere. It’s why I love Ireland so much — it’s a land of a thousand welcomes.” 

She said the messages from the Haida Nation should be “gentler, softer and more diplomatic.”

“With respect to messaging moving forward … everyone, right now, is working on reputation management,” Cowpar said. “Having said that, it’s important at this point to convey a positive message, in my view.”

When the pandemic began, Cowpar and many other tourism operators in the area saw a complete drop in bookings and a major increase in cancellations. But now, as restrictions across the province begin to lift, he hopes people will rebook and that the message to “stay away” doesn’t deter future bookings.

“I’m fielding calls each and every day,” he said. “There’s the question of are we allowed to come, when can we come. So, at this point, we’re just only hoping to find answers and obviously respect the protocols that are currently in place.”

Alsop did not provide specifics about when the Haida Nation would allow visitors to Haida Gwaii again. He said that when it does, it will be done in a “controlled and deliberate manner.”

“Although B.C. has made significant progress and is trending in the right direction as it moves into slowing opening up, tourism is a national and international industry and the risks remain too high at this moment,” he said.