Thank the bears, says guide for B.C. ecotourism boom

Click to play video: 'Eco-tourism on the rise in BC' Eco-tourism on the rise in BC
Eco-tourism on the rise in BC – May 5, 2016

He’s been a tour guide for 17 years, but Tom Rivest says the enchantment of the Great Bear Rainforest never wears off.

“It’s a pretty special place, it’s pretty magical,” Rivest said.

He is one of many bear viewing guides operating within the rainforest. His floating lodge, accessible only by boat or float plane, sits atop reflective waters deep in the coastal inlet.

Rivest’s days are spent navigating the estuary in Smith’s Inlet, cruising along on a small boat, in search of grizzly bears to shoot. His weapon of choice: a camera.

It takes a combination of patience, a trained eye and a simple, if not obvious, trick to master this business of bear viewing.

“Being in the right place at the right time, as always, right?,” Rivest said with a laugh.

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These up close and personal bear viewing trips draw thousands of tourists the world over to the Great Bear Rainforest.

Many pay upwards of $1,000 per night just for a glimpse at these iconic creatures.

“We have had one person who’s come back seven times,” Rivest said. “People love bears.”

The insatiable demand means these coastal hideaways can barely keep up. Rivest’s floating lodge is already at 80 per cent capacity, and it hasn’t even opened up for the season.

“I really don’t know where the limit is, everybody’s full. Most of the operators that are marketing well, they’re more or less full,” he said.

His is just one of the many thriving Eco Tourism operations in B.C., as more tourists seek out ecologically responsible holidays.

In most cases, wildlife, particularly grizzly bears, are a big draw. It’s a multi-million dollar industry focused on exposing guest to a part of the world most don’t get to see, without shortchanging the environment.

“I can only speak for our specific lodge, but we probably contribute about $40 million per year to the B.C. economy,” said Dean Wyatt, co-owner of the Knight Inlet Lodge, just south of Rivest’s floating hideaway.

For all their success, the commercial bear viewing industry is facing challenges: concerns about salmon, accessibility in the region and the years-old debate over bear viewing and hunting in the rainforest.

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However, Wyatt said those ongoing challenges are doing little, if anything, to suppress business, or temper interest.

Wyatt is already booked for the season, his guests coming from all over the world, on average, 19 different countries every year.

“Our clients come to Canada just to see the bears. If they don’t get their slot to see the bears, they don’t come to Canada.”

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