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Count to 10 - Ready or Not Port Alberni

Ready or not the tourists are coming, and according to the Expedia article ‘Canadian Millennial's Recommend Their Favourite Places to Visit in 2018' they may be coming to Port Alberni; have we been found?

Port Alberni has been titled the ‘Hot Lumberjack-Hipster’ of BC; according to 1000 Canadian millennial's surveyed by Expedia. The article was published at the beginning of February 2018, and proves that our little community is picking up in popularity as a desired place to visit.

When I read the article and saw Port Alberni on the list, it didn’t surprise me, but it did make my heart jump. As a scholar in tourism, and an active tourism advocate in Port Alberni, I realized that we still have several things to sort out before the world discovers our little haven. Being titled as the Hot Lumberjack –Hipster of B.C made me question, “is this who we are?" "Is this our brand?" "Is this a good representative of what Port Alberni is as a community?" I am not convinced. Not only are we undeveloped with our brand, but we cannot support increased tourism with the structures and tourism products we currently have.

Through several efforts over the year, the community is learning about and embracing tourism as an economic driver and community revitalization tool. Campaigns such as ‘exploreportalberni’ highlight local residents, and the beautiful landscapes and sites worth experiencing. The Mclean Mill Historic Park has evolved to not only be a historic landmark, but a thriving events venue, and destination that delivers remarkable experiences. Moreover, systems are being explored to support tourism growth, such as the Alberni Valley Tourism Training Program, where skill development and sustainable tourism practices are being taught to local business, staff, and residents of the Alberni Valley. With all this subsurface energy starting to form and boil with promise of tourism as a conduit to community revitalization, resiliency, and prosperity, it urges a deeper look on our development strategies before we lose our grip on the beast that can be the tourism industry.

Port Alberni is at such an opportune point in development to lead the way in the responsible tourism industry; one that reflects environmental and social ethics and restorative tourism practices. Port Alberni is an outdoor mecca; it offers world class trails, lakes that people dream about, abundant wildlife, and diverse peoples. However, we need to consider that if Port Alberni continues to be highlighted in articles, grow in social media presence, and become a ‘hipsters’ paradise, the region runs the risk of not having the systems, processes and infrastructure in place to manage an influx of visitors to the community.

Are community stakeholders ready to let this label define what Port is as a destination? Does it express and include a broad scope of what the town offers and represents?

This is vital; it is common knowledge that communities see negative effects without the implementation and consideration of a strategic tourism plan, appropriate policy, government support, and acknowledgment of socio-ecological best practices for tourism. What do these negative impacts look like? They look like over carrying capacity to our natural areas, biodiversity loss, over flow in our waste management systems, decreased air quality, decreased water quality, residential fatigue or resentment towards visitors, and exploitation of indigenous peoples and customs.

As a resident in Port Alberni and a tourism consultant, it is thrilling that Port Alberni is gaining traction and being recognized. But what message does this article send to the world? Certainly the article indicates that Port Alberni is becoming attractive to a range of people who are interested in the raw and unique features. However, it seems we have been labeled the ‘Hot Lumberjack-hipster’ of BC, so what does this title mean to Port Alberni as a brand, symbol, and destination? Are community stakeholders ready to let this label define what Port is as a destination? Does it express and include a broad scope of what the town offers and represents?

At this critical point in community development and diversification, there is opportunity to build the tourism market and brand with innovation and moral deliberation. Let’s genuinely gather in our effort to create a brand identity that reflects the authentic pieces of our people and land that reflects the community’s best interest. Port Alberni deserves to have a brand that reflects inclusivity, diversity, and innovation.

So why does the concept of the hot-lumberjack-hipster not quite do it….Let’s have a quick look.

Unfortunately, the word lumberjack implies many meanings and symbols that do not adequately represent the Alberni Valley community in its entirety. Yes, this community is traditionally a logging community, but that would be mostly from a settler and western lens. Traditionally, this valley is home of the Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations, and according to their shared cultural stories it does not include the traditional wear of red flannel. The word Lumberjack perpetuates unconscious colonization, and inadvertently frames Port Alberni with an incomplete story.

Additionally, the concept of a lumberjack supports an outdated male dominated perspective of this town, one that we want to shake off. Not only does a lumberjack not represent women in this community, but it doesn't accurately represent the majority of the male population in the Port Alberni either. Taking this a step further, there are other kinds of diversity in our community, other minorities that aren't represented by this image. Simply put, do we want to promote and foster family, ethnic diversity, and gender equity in the spaces we work and play in? If so, what is our brand?

The words people use to create symbols of identity have the ability to shape our social and environmental spaces. It can only benefit Port Alberni to meaningfully look at how residents and businesses want to develop as a community as a potential tourism destination. Is Port Alberni going to bring in the desired psycho-graphics by having this title? Who do we want to welcome into our community? Options are vast: Eco-conscious travelers, visitors by the masses, retirees, or niche market adventurers?

There are many possibilities and avenues to explore, and while there is appreciation for the recognition in articles such at the Expedia post, this community has the power and privilege to direct a strong vision of how they want their home town to adapt and change. This article reminds us all that tourism pressures exist, and we still need to prepare for what it will look like when Port is an established tourism destination.

The energy and potential of this community gets me so excited, and as I finish this article I think about the potential we, as a community, have to make a positive change in a direction that is sustainable and progressive. Port Alberni has been working towards developing tourism and has a good start, but we can't stop now, because ready or not, here they come.

Responsible Tourism can help us get there, and with a few hands of support we can decide how visitors experience our home; Port Alberni.

Image Sources: Google Images

Author: Genevieve Huneault

Edits: Reanna McMillan

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