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Ahousaht Nation makes foray into Tofino tourism industry

With decline in resource industries, Ahousaht see need to diversify.
Eugene Stewart Jr. with one of Ahous Adventure's boats. via Corene Inouye

Ahousaht Nation has launched an ecotourism tour company called Ahous Adventure, the first large Indigenous-owned tour company in Tofino in decades.

Longtime tour guide Eugene Stewart Jr. of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, has noted the increase in visitors interested in learning about local First Nations history and culture. The interest is international — Stewart recounted the curious experience of giving several back-to-back interviews to a German press junket that visited last year.

Stewart is one of Ahous Adventure’s initial hires. In addition to spending his 21st season as a tour guide and boat operator, he’s training two Ahousaht boat drivers on how to become a professional tour guide.

“There’s a huge amount of potential here,” Stewart said. In the off-season months, the company has plans to start a “skipper’s boot camp” for Ahousaht members interested in joining the industry, he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many Indigenous guides to leave the industry for other lines of work, such as commercial fishing, Stewart said. Last year’s season saw only two First Nation guides working out of Tofino, he said.

“The tourism sector has historically marginalized our community,” said hereditary representative Tyson Atleo, adding that the Ahousaht have seen little benefit from tourism in the past.

There are Indigenous-owned tour companies operating out of Tofino. But there hasn’t been an Indigenous-owned tour company with more than a single boat for more than 20 years, said Stewart.

Much of Ahous Adventures’ infrastructure — including its boat fleet, a mechanic shop, staff accommodations and its Main Street store — was purchased “at a good rate” from Ocean Outfitters, a Tofino-based tour company that shut down last October, said Atleo.

Ahous Adventures is owned and managed by Ahousaht hereditary chiefs through a non-proft organization, the Maaqutusiis Hahoutlhee Stewardship Society that was set up to return economic and land governance of Ahousaht Nation territory to its hereditary families in 2012.

“The biggest challenge is going to be helping people fill these jobs in a meaningful way, ensuring that guests are educated on Ahousaht history and realities,” Atleo said.

The goal of Ahousaht’s tourism push is to generate economic development that will move the nation toward a sustainable future, said Atleo.

Last year, the Maaqutusiis Hahoutlhee Stewardship Society also purchased the 126-acre Tofino Wilderness Resort, previously listed for sale at $8 million in 2021.

Ahousaht’s tourism foray is funded in part by leveraging Maaqutusiis Hahoutlhee Stewardship Society revenue generated from resource-based sectors, Atleo said.

“We need to envision a future for our community and our people,” Atleo said. “One of the ways to do that effectively is to invest in tourism. It’s a re-imagining, of the stewarding of natural resources in a way that benefits people and place.”

In recent years, some kayaking companies in Tofino have begun charging a $15 stewardship fee on behalf of the Maaqutusiis Hahoutlhee Stewardship Society, which has put put that money toward projects such as the rejuvenation of salmon-bearing rivers.

Historically, the Ahousaht were whalers, Atleo said. But with the decline of traditional resource extraction industries such as commercial fishing and logging, there is a greater need for a more diversified economy.

“It’s a long-term vision to steward our lands and waters in a way that allows Ahousaht people to live happy and fulfilled lives, but also to sustain our work to maintain the integrity of our ecosystem and the territories on which we depend,” Atleo said.

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