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Tourist businesses in Tofino reeling from ongoing wildfire-related road closure

Businesses on Vancouver Island’s west coast are hoping for the best and bracing for the worst amid a highway shutdown that’s virtually cut them off from the rest of the province.

Highway 4 remains closed east of Port Alberni due to the Cameron Bluffs wildfire.

The Ministry of Transportation says the soonest it will reopen is June 24, and then only to single-lane alternating traffic until mid July.

That has the highly-tourism dependent communities of Tofino and Ucluelet on edge, particularly with many businesses still recovering from COVID-19.

“(I thought) this is the year its going to be back to normal. Like on a shoestring budget all of spring, trying to survive to the summer, is kind of the game in Tofino because we do about 80 per cent of our business in four months of the year,” Dave Thielmann, owner of Bravocados Bistro in Tofino told Global news.

“It’s incredibly important to make your money in the summertime right now. This is when we should be boosting our sales and our savings, but instead I’m right back into survival mode, cutting people, less staff on less hours and just trying to survive for another eight to 10 days.”

Just next door, Ahous Adventures is trying to put a positive spin on its inaugural season.

The tour company owned by the Ahousaht First Nation just opened for business last month, but after a strong start is now facing a virtual ghost town.

“We are experiencing some cancellations … but we’re just taking it day by day and just seeing what we can do to keep things going and encourage people that have reservations to keep those,” Assistant General Manager Brent Baker said.

“Tofino is open, there’s accommodation providers that are operating and ready to welcome people, and for those that make the tour out here we’re here to show them the best parts of the area.”

The town is not completely cut off. Regional airlines have stepped up flights, and the province has opened an alternate land route on an industrial forest service road.

But flights are out of the budget for many tourists, and transportation officials have urged people to avoid the detour route unless it’s essential travel.

“It’s tough. Businesses are starting to really feel it, we’re seeing anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent loss of business here. So it’s not a joke, it’s really the potential to be quite devastating,” Tofino Mayor Dan Law said.

“We’re seeing restaurants send people home. And if those employees are out of work for a couple of weeks there’s the potential they could leave the community … that’s over and above the direct impact to business owners, who have just come out of the pandemic.”

Law said he wants the the Ministry of Transportation to help get the word out that the west coast communities remain open for business, and are counting on visitors to stay afloat.

Thielmann said businesses want to see help, potentially in the form of financial support, from the provincial government.

In the meantime, he and other businesses in the community are doing what they can to keep the doors open.

“I’m a single-owned small business with no big financial backing, it’s a pretty critical time for us right now,” he said.

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