Can Tourism Save B.C.’s Ailing Towns?

Regional councillor John Koury shares the concerns of Croftonites who wonder whether tourism is the answer to a flagging economy. All across B.C., former resource towns ?are attempting to freshen up their image and rebrand themselves as tourist meccas, ?hoping the jobs and tax dollars will soon ?follow. If only it were that easy?.?


Regional councillor John Koury shares the concerns of Croftonites who wonder whether tourism is the answer to a flagging economy.

All across B.C., former resource towns 
are attempting to freshen up their image and rebrand themselves as tourist meccas, 
hoping the jobs and tax dollars will soon 
follow. If only it were that easy

It’s odd that there aren’t more tourists in Crofton, B.C. Every building and home in this sleepy hillside town has a stunning ocean view, and Crofton is also one of the only Vancouver Island towns with a harbour deep enough to accommodate cruise ships. True, the main streets are clogged with vacationers every summer waiting for the hourly ferry to Salt Spring Island, but even when they have an hour to kill, visitors are hard-pressed to do anything in town besides grab a cup of coffee or take a quick stroll along the sea walk.

The lack of tourist activity is no mystery to Croftonites; all you have to do is sniff. Perched right on the northern edge of town, the Catalyst pulp and paper 
mill belches out a 24-hour-a-day cloud of foul-smelling odour. “It’s a tall 
order to attract tourists to a region that has a great big mill,” says 

regional councillor John Koury. “There’s not one cruise ship 
that’s going to pull up in Crofton right now.”

If Crofton’s major employer, Catalyst Paper, shuts down, residents will have a difficult job turning the town into a tourist magnet if they even want to.

Business hasn’t been good at the mill in recent years. The newspaper business is deteriorating and, with it, the demand for newsprint. Last winter the facility mothballed an entire line of production. In January, 36 mill workers lost their jobs when Catalyst permanently shut down its No. 1 paper machine. It’s not so much a question of jobs for Crofton – the town of 2,500 is mostly full of retirees, with workers commuting from neighbouring communities – but if the mill were to close, more than 60 per cent of the region’s tax base would evaporate and property taxes would skyrocket. Even worse, as far as many residents are concerned, within weeks of a closure, a better-smelling Crofton would be crawling with tourism developers, homebuyers and vacationers. It’s a shocking prospect for the introverted town, but, faced with the hard reality of living next door to a tenuous industry, Crofton may have to make some tough decisions about filling a post-mill void. As with countless other B.C. communities founded on resource economies, “resorting to tourism” may be the inevitable next step.

It’s become a B.C. cliché: a mill or mine shuts down and overnight a small town is left scrambling to reinvent itself. Tourism is always a tantalizing prospect, and with B.C.’s mining and forestry towns locked in a devastating cycle of boom and bust, increasingly for B.C.’s small towns, it’s either “go tourist” or “go bust.” However, it’s not a simple matter of throwing a switch and becoming a tourist destination; first a town has to pull together to decide it wants to become a tourist destination, then it has to come up with an effective plan. While some former resource towns offer shining examples of how to do it right, others are just now coming to grips with some tough decisions. 

Crofton is a town on the cusp; facing an uncertain future, it is divided between those clinging to the spirit of an insulated blue-collar town and those eager to prepare for a future that doesn’t depend on a mill. “Crofton’s tourism potential is huge,” says Graham Bruce, a former BC Liberal labour minister and a Crofton resident since the late 1970s. Almost 30 years ago, Bruce was mayor of the surrounding Municipality of North Cowichan, a region that includes the nearby tourist town of Chemainus. It was Bruce who oversaw Chemainus’s miraculous three-year transformation from a town on the brink of bankruptcy into a regional tourism centre. 

However, despite the potential, Bruce is among those who doesn’t see tourism in Crofton’s future. “It’s going to be more of a bedroom community, a place where people hang their hat at night,” he says. “I don’t see tourism suddenly becoming a huge employer.” It may be a vacation destination, but the Crofton secret is already out among homebuyers. When he first cleared a patch of land to build his Crofton home, Bruce’s only neighbours were trees. Now he’s just another house in a suburb. “Real estate was cheap, the community was interesting and the next thing you know the growth starts feeding on the growth,” says Bruce.


Tourism is seen to be a relatively easy solution; it’s not. The perception is that you’ll just put up your banner and people will flock to it. It’s much more complicated than that.” Brock Smith, tourism economist, University of Victoria

With each expansion of the population, the town takes on another ingredient of the average West Coast vacation spot. A block away from the ferry terminal, the aging Crofton Hotel has just been renovated into a chic café, restaurant and boutique hotel. The beach may still be covered in a film of polluted black sand, but visitors can now stroll the seaside on an attractive elevated boardwalk.

Charlie Webb can’t wait for Crofton to turn the corner on the next stage of its history. With a friendly demeanour, a head of close-cropped white hair and a silver Ford F-150 emblazoned with his company logo, Webb cuts the perfect image of a developer. “The mill going down makes this town better,” he says bluntly. Webb’s Sunrise Ridge development, to be built on the south end of town, will incorporate multi-family dwellings, seniors housing and affordable cottage-style homes. The past few years have seen a rush of newcomers into Crofton and Webb is simply answering the demand.

When it comes to tourism, Crofton has both the sights and the developers. What the town needs to do is decide whether it’s ready to be a tourist destination, and that decision does not seem close at hand. Many Croftonites appreciate the mill smell, reasoning that if the town smells bad, property values stay down and tourists stay out. “That mill going down would be the worst thing that could happen to Crofton, not because people will move away but because people will move in,” says Larry Harris, archivist at the Crofton Museum. 

“I think Crofton is a bedroom community and people want to keep it that way,” echoes resident Vonda Derksen, just after wrapping up a mid-afternoon meeting of the Crofton Book Club.

Drive 11 minutes north of Crofton and you’ll think you’ve entered Disneyland. Just like Crofton, Chemainus was once a dusty resource town. But where there were once logging trucks, there are now Asian tour buses, and today Chemainus sets the benchmark for the clean, tourist-friendly B.C. town.

Twenty years ago, most of Chemainus saw Karl Schutz as a pest. For years, meetings of the town’s chamber of commerce had been plagued by the German-born furniture dealer, who had a bizarre plan to turn the mill town into a tourist mecca by filling its downtown with murals. “They thought it was the dumbest idea they had ever heard,” says Schutz.


“You can’t just build Stonehenge in a town and say, ‘Now we’re Stonehenge.’ It’s a very difficult project and it requires a great deal of public engagement.” Schaun Goodeve, president of the Kimberly Chamber of Commerce

By the early 1980s, Chemainus’s fortunes were in a nosedive. The international timber market had tanked, and the 125-year-old Chemainus mill stood on the brink of closure. One-fifth of Chemainus faced unemployment, and the town braced for guaranteed ruin. It was then that mayor Bruce decided to book a meeting with the eccentric German. “It was a daft, daft idea at the time,” says Bruce of Shutz’s mural plan. Today, 41 murals later, a revitalized Chemainus welcomes more than 400,000 tourists a year. The town’s artwork depicts Chemainus’s gruff industrial origins, offering a sharp contrast to the town’s perfectly manicured downtown today.

Murals may have proved to be the saviour of Chemainus, but transitioning from mill town to tourist mecca isn’t merely a question of choosing a signature gimmick and waiting for the tourists to arrive. It has to be the right gimmick.

Last October the town council in Barriere, B.C., considered a quirky plan to build a concrete replica of Stonehenge in the centre of town. Barriere had lost its main employer seven years earlier, when a discarded cigarette burned the nearby Tolko mill to ruins, taking 180 jobs with it. Normally, there are few tourists to be seen in Barriere, except when they’re filling up their car en route between Kamloops and Clearwater. A Stonehenge, it was hoped, would help pull tourists off the highway and inject some vibrancy back into the downtown. “Let’s be frank: what else is there?” says Virginia Smith, chair of the Barriere parks committee. “There’s no fishing, there’s no mining; what other resource industry can we pull on?”

However, lack of local support ultimately killed the Stonehenge plan. The idea generated a fair bit of media buzz when it was first introduced, but it quickly fizzled off the town council’s agenda. People just weren’t interested in spending the town’s thin resources on such a quixotic project. “One of the biggest things with these projects is getting community buy-in and funding – neither of which is available at the moment,” says Smith.


Chemainus’s murals and quaint downtown fuelled its transition to a tourism economy, a plan now taught to struggling post-resource towns around the world.

“Tourism is seen to be a relatively easy solution; it’s not,” says Brock Smith, a tourism economist at the University of Victoria. “The perception is that you’ll just put up your banner and people will flock to it. It’s much more complicated than that.” What sets successful tourist towns apart, says Smith, is a co-ordinated branding strategy. Every community in B.C. has “nice scenery,” but what fills up hotel rooms is a “compelling, differentiated product.” Much more than simply building a giant hockey stick or a replica Stonehenge, communities have to reinvent themselves, says Smith. 

Ever since the Chemainus story hit international headlines, Karl Schutz has made a career of reinventing communities. Once his mural experiment was up and running, Schutz began bringing the concept to beleaguered industry towns throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Now, with 68 new Chemainuses under his belt, Schutz’s mural strategy appears foolproof. Still, without the magic ingredient of community solidarity, murals alone can’t save a town, says Schutz.

Schutz made sure that the earliest Chemainus murals were based on historical photographs of the community. Once naysayers found they could identify with the murals, they started changing their mind. When tourist dollars started to flow in, they were convinced. Whatever the tourist strategy, if the locals don’t like it, it’s doomed to failure, notes Schutz.

In Kimberley, B.C., community buy-in to that town’s branding strategy is near-fanatical. The Sullivan mine was once the world’s largest lead-zinc-silver operation, and neighbouring Kimberley was the poster child for the B.C. boom town. Mine owner Teck Cominco Ltd. (now Teck Resources Ltd.), dubbed “Mother Cominco” by locals, had built Kimberley into a playground of hockey rinks, curling rinks, aquatic centres and ski hills. But by the early 1970s, Kimberleyites knew their mining days were numbered. Teck Cominco delivered a forecast to Kimberley town council stating that the Sullivan mine reserves would run out before the end of the century. “They knew they had about 30 years left,” says Schaun Goodeve, president of the Kimberley and District Chamber of Commerce. 


Within months of the announcement, a group of concerned citizens drafted an ambitious plan to whip Kimberley into shape for its post-industrial future. Kimberley, they decided, was going to become a Bavarian-themed mountain town. Business owners decked out their downtown shops with wooden facades and residents chose a mustachioed, lederhosen-wearing yodeller as the town mascot. As the final pièce de résistance, the Kimberley Bavarian Society built the world’s largest cuckoo clock in the centre of downtown. “They waited until the bylaw officer had gone fishing for the weekend; it was a rogue mission,” says Goodeve.

Right on schedule, the Sullivan mine closed in 2001. “The majority of people thought Kimberley was dead,” says Goodeve. Nevertheless, 30 years of preparation had done its job, and Kimberley quickly showed a remarkable resilience. Now, only 10 years after 600 Sullivan miners lost their jobs, Kimberley still maintains 94 per cent of its pre-closure population. 

A kitschy German theme got the town on its feet, but what’s kept Kimberley going is a steady focus on continual improvement. Tourism is always a work in progress, says Goodeve. The town now counts four golf courses as well as a ski hill within city limits. In recent years, the town has also branded itself as a prime training hub for Paralympic athletes. “You can’t just build Stonehenge in a town and say, ‘Now we’re Stonehenge.’ It’s a very difficult project, and it requires a great deal of public engagement,” says Goodeve. 

When you need public engagement, economic collapse is always a good start. Tumbler Ridge knew it had tourism potential, but only a handful of people were bothering to look into it. “When everybody’s making $35 an hour, the thought of jumping out as entrepreneurs just isn’t there,” says Ray Proulx, Tumbler Ridge’s community development officer. In 2000 the unexpected closure of the nearby Quintette mine left 800 workers unemployed and instantly removed 35 per cent of the local tax base. For those who wanted to keep their Tumbler Ridge homes, it was either commute to Fort McMurray or take up tourism. Miners who had boated on the weekends were suddenly taking visitors on river tours. “It’s a forced evolution,” says Proulx.


Croftonites fear tourism because they think it forever changes the shape and character of a town. For the most part, they’re right. Using tourism, Chemainus and Kimberley have kept their populations up and their tax bases secure – but in doing so they have been transformed into very different places. 

In Kimberley the mine closure spurred an exodus out of the residential areas. Lured by fire-sale housing prices, newcomers just as quickly repopulated the town. Goodeve remembers friends snapping up houses on credit cards. While Kimberley’s phone book is still just as thick, it’s now filled with hundreds of new names. “That’s the cultural reality, that you’re going to have a changing dynamic,” says Goodeve. Artists and entrepreneurs flood in and the town’s original base of resource workers flood out, he says.

Tourist towns may be different than resource towns, but at least they exist. Ghost towns and ghost roads used to be the sad inevitability of a province built on forestry and mining. Settlements were disposable; as soon as the resources ran out, the town would be dismantled and left for dead. What towns such as Chemainus have proven is that, in the age of RVs and ecotourism, small towns can be reanimated.

As more towns groom themselves into vacation spots, more vacationers are showing up. In 1999 B.C. exported $7.4-
billion worth of softwood lumber and brought in $4.8-billion worth of tourist spending. Last year tourism brought in a record-high $7.4 billion. Softwood exports, meanwhile, only came to $2.7 billion. “We haven’t hit any kind of ceiling in terms of growth yet,” says Pete Larose, a director with the Council of Tourism Associations of B.C. The camera-toting vacationer, more than the Douglas fir or the coal seam, is fast becoming the new backbone of B.C. The better B.C.’s towns are at swapping their saws for smiles, the better chance they’ll have of staying on the map.