Spirit Bear Lodge (SBL) is an Indigenous-owned wildlife viewing lodge in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.  Our vision for our land and resources is based on our best definition of the term sustainable. To us, this means that the wealth of forests, fish, wildlife, and the complexity of all life will be here forever. It also means that we will be here forever. To remain here as Kitasoo and Xai’xais people, we need to protect our land, our ocean, and our culture. A visit to Spirit Bear Lodge is so much more than spectacular wildlife; guests become informed on current conservation efforts and the stewardship of our traditional territory.  By visiting Spirit Bear Lodge and learning about our history, our culture, and our traditional knowledge you become a part of our forever.

When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?

Our impact tourism began from the concept of this project within the community. The goal was to protect the land, people, and wildlife of the area by creating a community-owned tourism operation. In the Land Use Plan produced in 1999 to protect areas in their territory, Klemtu identified ecotourism (non-extractive tourism) as a new economic opportunity to be developed. The Kitasoo Development Corporation, established 1994, noted that the community was able to see parallels between ecotourism and their own conservation-based approach to resource management.

The lodge has become a positive entity in the community as it represents a protection of the most important resources in the area and provides employment for three generations. It continues to drive the community into other impact tourism projects, as Klemtu welcomes other ecotourism companies into the community for tours of the big house and other tourism attractions in the area. Artists are starting to produce more work to sell to the increase of tourists visiting Klemtu.

Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.

The focus in the community has switched from resource extraction to resource preservation. The idea that tourism is a viable resource and can create jobs has meant less trees have been cut down and the territory is being protected for future generations to enjoy.

Stopping the grizzly bear hunt in the territory is just one of the HUGE impacts our projects have had in the area. Together with the help and partnership of conservation groups like Raincoast Conservation Foundation and First Nations Bands in the Great Bear Rainforest, we have achieved a 20-year goal of stopping the trophy hunt of grizzly bears all together in BC. In August 2017, the Government of British Columbia made a public commitment to close the grizzly bear hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest and end grizzly bear trophy hunting in the remainder of the province after the 2017 fall grizzly bear hunt concluded on Nov. 30, 2017.  

In addition, many of our employees have either started or continue to also be involved with the following other programs, which are all supported by Spirit Bear Lodge.

The Súa Cultural Program is a summer-long cultural experience for people in the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation. Súa was started by local youth with a keen interest in interacting with their community and maintaining the Kitasoo/Xai’xais traditional practices. The program’s goals are to provide the people of Klemtu with opportunities to visit the historic sites of their ancestors, share traditional knowledge and skills, and maintain strong connections with their community and roots. Some examples of cultural workshops we do are drum making, cedar weaving, harvesting, fishing, song and dance, language, and territory trips.

Coastal Guardian Watchmen play a critical role in all aspects of stewardship for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais traditional territory ensuring resources are sustainably managed, that rules and regulations are followed, and that land and marine use agreements are implemented effectively. They uphold and enforce traditional and contemporary Indigenous laws passed down over countless generations, and work together to monitor, protect and restore the cultural and natural resources of these coastal territories.

Resource Stewardship provides technical advice and support for effective decision-making by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais community and its leadership, ensure that Kitasoo/Xai’xais laws, customs, traditions, policies and practices are included in resource planning and management decisions, and advocate for the recognition of Kitasoo/Xai’xais Aboriginal title and rights.

Spirit Bear Research Foundation is a collaboration between the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation and conservation scientists conducting locally relevant, ecosystem-based wildlife research to address pressing conservation concerns in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.

Has your impact tourism program helped, hurt, or had no impact on your business?

We are positive that most of our impact efforts have been what draws our guests. We are just starting to discover the power of cultural tourism and the impact that it has on guests that visit the lodge, such as when a guest says that they initially came to the lodge to see the wildlife, but it was the culture, cultural sites, and the people that made their stay memorable and had the biggest impact for them. Every year we are marketing more of the cultural tourism products we have available to us.

Vetting Process

How do you select projects?

We select projects and partnerships based on a similar value system to how we operate the lodge. Do they put people, land, and wildlife first? Are they Indigenous owned? If not, are they local enough that we feel good about doing business with them?

What is the structure to ensure ongoing accountability?

Accountability comes from us doing our research and developing relationships with our partners. We work alongside Spirit Bear Research, Resource Stewardship, Coastal Guardian Watchman, as they are all based out of Klemtu. Throughout the season we coordinate meetings and share resources with them. Partnerships with Sea Legacy, Raincoast Conservation, and Pacific Wild are also based on our mutual conservation interests and concerns. Their platforms around conservation are outstanding and align with our own. We are in constant contact with all of these groups, either working on projects together or planning collaborations.

Employee Engagement

How are your employees and your company involved in the projects?

We have 90% local employees who are implementing all the projects we are involved in by working at the lodge and interacting with guests.  As a company we work directly with our partners on various relevant and ongoing projects such as wildlife monitoring, beach clean up, protection of sacred cultural sites, and assisting with research to ensure more areas are protected from resource extraction.

What have been staff reactions?

Our staff get it and feel proud to be working within a company that cares so deeply about them and their land. They tend to brag/talk about our decisions to the guests. Our hope is that they implement some of these changes into their everyday life within the community.

Have you provided staff training to support your impact tourism program?

Somewhat, but this is something we will focus more on this year with tools like posters in the lodge and on boats that demonstrate and support the story. Because we are offering more culture components as our tourism product, more effort will be put into training and development of this product. Resources will be developed by local guides to assist them with interpretation of cultural sites.

Funding Model

How are funds raised from travelers?

Travelers who visit SBL are supporting impact tourism by making the choice to spend their tourism dollars on a community owned lodge. We sell our experiences directly to travelers, and we sell through wholesale channels. Aside from travelers, we also apply for grants to help with marketing and building improvements at SBL.

How do you solicit donations?

For the first time all of our 2021 guests will pay a $100 per person conservation fee that will go directly to local organizations such as: Spirit Bear Research Foundation, Raincoast Foundation, Pacific Wild, Sea Legacy , Súa and/or Guardian Watchmen. Revenues from Spirit Bear Lodge are also part of the funding for these projects.

Are donations tax deductible?

Yes, donations can be tax deductible.

How are funds distributed?

Funds are distributed through a check at the end of our fiscal year or in-kind through trip donations.

To date, how much has been raised?

Each season, we have donated approximately $50,000 in cash and in-kind trips to organizations in the community and territory. To date it is hard to say how much the lodge has contributed—a lot!

Do project funds go into a separate account or to a foundation to ensure transparency and separation from business revenue? If not, what is your process to ensure financial accountability of donated funds?

All funds raised sit in a donation account. Each year we decide how much to allocate to each research and conservation group, which depends on funds available and the type of project that is being done by individual organizations. The $100 contribution from each guest will now allow us to donate more funds to conservation and research.

Visitor Engagement

Do travelers visit the project sites? Why or why not?

Yes, our visitors have the luxury of seeing all of our work in action daily from visiting cultural sites, protected wildlife areas and talking to locals at the lodge.

Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?

We do not offer voluntourism or facilitate material donations from travelers at the moment.
Instead, we encourage our guests to support our efforts by donating to one of the local conservation groups, rather than make a retail purchase to buy a souvenir, for example.

How is the impact tourism promoted or marketed to guests?

Visiting the lodge on a tour package is an educational and impact tourism experience in itself, and we promote it as such.  Our program is focused on educating visitors. Our new website also promotes these impact tourism programs.

What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?

This year we plan to improve speaking to our guests about purchasing decisions and the relationships that we have carefully forged in order to continue protecting our people, land, and wildlife.  We will do this through the development of a graphic to demonstrate where the guest’s $100 donation is going and to explain why we do not have a retail gift shop, single use plastics, etc.  This graphic will be sent out in all of our correspondence with potential and current guests as well as put on the website and made into a poster for the lodge.

Community Perspectives

How are you ensuring that your projects meet the most relevant needs of the community?

The lodge is monitored closely by Resource Stewardship in the community of Klemtu along with the Kitasoo band council, which is the governing body of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation. The locals that work within the lodge help to keep all things aligned within the values of the community. We always have elders around to encourage and remind us of the importance of why the lodge exists.

Resource Stewardship provide technical advice and support for effective decision-making by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais community and its leadership, ensure that Kitasoo/Xai’xais laws, customs, traditions, policies and practices are included in resource planning and management decisions, and advocate for the recognition of Kitasoo/Xai’xais Aboriginal title and rights.

Do you engage in ongoing dialogue with the local community? If so, how?

We are in constant dialogue with Resource Stewardship and band council, along with community members.

Has there ever been a time when adjustments to your approach or project have needed to be made as a result of community feedback? Please explain how you were able to adapt.

Yes, we adjust constantly to ensure we are being fair with local business as well as promoting the health and wellbeing of the community members. This process is ongoing, almost daily making tweaks to ensure the community’s values are respected.

We support local youth through our mentorship program, which grows and improves every year. The future of the local staff that we hire is based on building capacity from a young age, and getting the youth interested in the various career paths that the Lodge has to offer is extremely important. We have mentorship programs within the culinary team, housekeeping, and guide operations. Every year we adjust these programs based on the number of youth that we have available and the career interests of the group.

Lessons Learned

Why do you feel your impact tourism program has been so successful?

The main reason this tourism program has been successful is because it is community driven and remains a positive impact on the community and area as a whole.

What challenges has your company faced in developing a successful program?

The challenges have been and continue to be endless: the costs of operating in a remote area are staggering; the naysayers always exist; there can be jealousy within local families; it can be difficult to continually enforce the protection of the land and wildlife in the territory; there are decisions about whether we grow or not; getting fresh food into the community is difficult; accessing affordable flights into the community is challenging; and keeping staff healthy and motivated is challenging.

Why do you feel it is important for the tourism industry to not only promote a product but to provide environmental and community support?

It is imperative for tourism to take the lead in providing environmental and community support. Since travelers from all over the world come to visit us, this is our opportunity to teach them how to protect and support the environment and community by showing them what initiatives we are actively involved in.

What would your advice be to another company that is hoping to establish a successful impact tourism program?

Begin with the local community and get their support first. Establish protection areas and groups. It takes a long time to become profitable in such a competitive environment, but if we remain true to the people, land and wildlife we will be successful in the long term.

For more information contact: Bridget Orsetti, explore@spiritbear.com
Website: www.spiritbear.com

This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.