How the Tribal Parks Allies program is combining Tofino’s history with its future

For decades the the Tla-o-qui-aht nation hasn't felt the benefit of the area's business and tourism success

Weekend traffic crawls along Campbell Street in downtown Tofino. It’s a moody day. Ashen clouds brood above the green mountains of Clayoquot Sound. Suddenly the sky bursts with a downpour that sends tourists and locals running for cover.

A few blocks away inside the Common Loaf Bake Shop, Saya Masso, resource director for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, cradles a mug of coffee in one hand and a phone that pings repeatedly in the other.

Masso, a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member who studied economics at the University of Victoria before earning a master’s in Indigenous governance, oversees the Nation’s fisheries and forestry resources, and manages a small team of Tribal Park Guardians who do everything from beach cleanup and trail maintenance to fish hatchery work and public education. He’s also at the helm of an innovative program called Tribal Parks Allies that is building bridges, both economic and social, between Tofino’s booming tourism sector and the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation.

For decades, hotels and tour operators marketed the wind, waves, wildlife and wonder of Tla-o-qui-aht territory. However, the Tla-o-qui-aht people realized few of the benefits of that tourism while shouldering many of its challenges, like crowds, garbage, stress on water resources and other infrastructure, and inflated housing costs.

“A quick Google search will show you how much tourism revenue is generated in this region. It’s upwards of $350 million annually,” Masso says.

The Tla-o-qui-aht established the guardian program to try to mitigate some of these impacts. Their traditional territory is divided into four tribal parks, an assertion of sovereignty that began in the 1980s when the nation declared Meares Island the Wah-nuh-jus – Hilth-hoo-is Tribal Park following a B.C. Supreme Court victory that halted MacMillan Bloedel’s logging plans. The problem, explains Masso, is that the guardian program lacked funds. A solution arrived almost by chance.

In 2017, Julian Hockin-Grant was working on a master’s in anthropology, environment and development at University College London. He had heard about tribal parks and, through a family connection, he contacted Masso about a potential thesis project.

“Funding was a big constraint for the Tla-o-qui-aht Guardians stewardship program and Saya had been unsuccessfully lobbying for some kind of legislated fee for a while,” Hockin-Grant says. “At the time, my brother was working for a company called EDGE in Switzerland, which has a corporate gender equity certification program. That’s where the idea of a certification program and incentivizing businesses to voluntarily contribute a fee came from.”

Tribal Parks Allies, in essence, is a pay-to-play initiative. To help fund the guardian program, businesses and organizations are asked to add a 1-percent ecosystem service fee to the cost of a hotel stay, surf lesson, wildlife tour or restaurant meal.

It’s voluntary, but so far more than 120 organizations, from hotels to surf companies, have signed the Tribal Parks Allies protocol agreement. Hockin-Grant says that Allies participants are not required to open their books: “They give us a cheque and we don’t ask any questions.”

Participants also commit to telling a more nuanced story about the Clayoquot Sound region that goes beyond the pretty wilderness postcard version.

“The fee is just part of it. We’re asking Allies to portray an authentic narrative about Tla-o-qui-aht history and colonization and it’s equally important to acknowledge the impacts of tourism,” says Hockin-Grant. “It’s a work in progress and we’re building it as we go.”

There are some high-profile absences on the Tribal Parks Allies roster, including the tony Wickaninnish Inn. Up until recently, Pacific Sands Beach Resort was on that list as well. It signed on last September.

Pacific Sands general manager Sabrina Donovan says the resort held off at first so it could see how the funds would be spent. Three years in, she believes the guardian program has proven its value, especially through cultural education that Donovan says Pacific Sands staff and guests are hungry for. In celebration of the resort’s 50th anniversary, the owners are making a $50,000 donation to Tribal Parks Allies. According to Donovan, a soft launch last year of the 1-percent ecosystem service fee wasn’t as successful as hoped.

“There are a lot of things at play. Coming out of COVID, I think customers are a little more price sensitive. There’s already the MRDT [a 3-percent fee collected by Tofino hotels and resorts] and there’s talk of a sustainability tax as well,” Donovan explains. “So, I’d say we’re taking baby steps toward adding this fee. Tribal Parks Allies is definitely something the owners want to support.”

Hotel Zed was an early adopter. The hotel joined Tribal Parks Allies even before opening its Tofino property in August 2020. “We wanted to champion the program with other accommodation providers,” says Nikisa Banks, director of marketing and communication for Accent Inns, the Victoria-based parent company of Hotel Zed.

According to Banks, front-end staff are trained to educate customers about Tribal Parks Allies. Since opening, she knows of only one customer who has complained about the 1-percent surcharge. “It’s an ask of the customer and we’re happy to reverse the fee if they complain,” Banks says.

Hotel Zed has also embraced the storytelling side of the protocol agreement. The company commissioned journalist Ian Gill, Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Guardian and artist Gisele Martin and author Joanna Streetly to co-write ?iisaak in the Garden (Respect in the Garden), a book that explores Tla-o-qui-aht territorial stewardship and the “War in the Woods” that began on Meares Island nearly 40 years ago. A copy is placed in every guestroom.

“So many people come to Tofino and fall in love with the place without really understanding the history,” Banks says. “We feel this is the right thing to do.”

Flame graphic by Svetlana Zybina - iStock

On the Radar

Average monthly occupancy for major hotels in Tofino between January and September:

2019 – 72.6%

2022 – 75.8%

2023 – 66.5%

48.3%Occupancy in June 2023, when a wildfire forced the closure of Highway 4, the only paved route connecting western Vancouver Island with the rest of the province

$44 millionEstimated loss in tourism revenue in Tofino and  Ucluelet during the 17-day highway closure

Source: Tourism Tofino,  Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce