On Bowen Island, tourism is one of three industries that has been singled-out by the municipality's Economic Development Committee (EDC) offering potential for growth on the Island. As Shawna Leung, Community Manager of the Vancouver Coast & Mountains Tourism Region told a full audience at the municipal hall this week, this is a belief that hasn't changed since the first Bowen Island Tourism Strategy was created in 2006. That plan was never implemented, and attendees at this week's Bowen Tourism Initiative meeting as well as EDC hosts agreed, that without proper community support this new plan will never be implemented either.
Leung offered up a number of strengths (spa and wellness opportunities, arts and culture, ecotourism) and challenges (the perceived attitudes of locals towards tourism, no local organization focused on tourism, and a low awareness of Bowen in the tourist market)Bowen faces when it comes to building a its tourism industry. She also offered up a key goal that a tourism strategy should focus on: get people to stay here longer and spend more money.
Leung also made suggestions to get there: create a web-presence for tourism on Bowen, create itineraries for tourists so that people know what to do if they spend a day or three on-island, and get more media-relations savvy.
Following her thorough presentation, Leung gave her audience a chance to ask questions, offer feedback, and brainstorm.
Peter Vaisbord, proprietor of Artisan Guest Suite, said he was impressed by the depth of research in the updated strategic plan, but daunted by the number of priorities.
"Looking at the detail of all the actions under all the categories, I almost fainted, because there's so much. I've been involved in not-for-profit organizations trying to achieve sustainable funding, and, as volunteers, to do things, and every one of those actions is inter-related to other actions and its a circle of: you need funding to have the capacity to do what you need to do but, you need to have the capacity to get the funding," said Vaisbord, bringing up the example of the Bowen Chamber of Commerce as anorganization that did not have the necessary funding or people-power to get the job done. "We have a real challenge here in terms of capacity. We're a small island with a small population, a lot of brilliant people, and passionate, but its really difficult."
Vaisbord suggested the model of Business Improvement Associations (BIA), which he is familiar with because of his work at Vancouver's city hall. as a possible solution.
Business Improvement Associations (BIA), which he is familiar with because of his work at Vancouver's city hall. as a possible solution.
"They're funded through a special tax levy that the city flows through after an approval process. The benefit of it is that unlike merchant associations which are membership-based, and you can never get more than a small percentage of people funding it and you can never afford to hire staff and usually people burn-out, the idea was, if you support something through a commercial tax levy, everyone contributes."
On this note Leung added that many municipalities collect a regional hotel tax, but Pemberton, which only has one actual hotel, collects such a tax from patrons on a voluntary basis. The next step for Pemberton will be to add a similar levy at the local golf course. Leung also noted that Port Hardy uses a sewer tax to collect similar funds and in the Fraser Canyon residents are taxed.
Kathy Lalonde, Bowen Island Chief Administrative Officer, told the audience that the municipality is looking at the BIA model to create a fund to support local businesses.
Jan Stevens, organizer of the Bowen Island Accommodations Associations, dismissed the idea of a hotel tax, considering there are only three hotels that offer more than three rooms on Bowen, and objected to the idea that tourists themselves should be taxed.
"I live in Henderson Nevada, right next door to Las Vegas," explained Stevens, "If anybody's taken a trip to Las Vegas you'll know that they charge tourists a big chunk. There's no meal less than $20 if you're eating on the strip. I don't know if that's increased tourism or not, but I certainly would hate to see a tax on tourists deter tourism on Bowen."
EDC member Murray Atherton agreed with Peter Vaisbord about the need for funding to launch a tourism strategy.
"We can't have this run strictly by volunteers," said Atherton. "We need to set up a tourism board with a municipal employee responsible for making sure the municipality is behind tourism and initiating the work of the board."
EDC member Gordon Ganong noted that there are chunks of funding from various agencies that could help get a tourism strategy rolling, but before accessing those, it is critical that concerned citizens get together and commit their time to accessing that funding. Ganong also noted that, while there is much to be done, work by the municipality on improving signage, the formation of an accommodations association, and the current plans to have a new Welcome Centre built by summer prove that the work required to improve tourism on Bowen is already underway.