Tofino’s population of almost 1,200 people in 1996 has increased by 65 per cent since the shift to tourism began in earnest (as a point of reference, British Columbia grew by around 25 per cent during the same period). A lot of that growth has to do with the explosion of small-business opportunities since the late 1990s, a reaction to what’s now more than one million annual visitors. Cafes, bakeries and restaurants such as Shelter (a contemporary local-fare-focused spot) and the much-loved Tacofino food truck, are flourishing, as are Surf Sister and other surfing schools, kayak rentals and sea tour operators, boutiques and galleries, B&Bs, hostels and inns. Of the roughly 1,930 Tofitians, more than 500 have business licences.
“This place is hugely entrepreneurial,” says McDiarmid, who sits on the town’s tourism board. “Just one example is Mike White — the guy used to babysit me! He now takes people out on his Browning Pass charter yacht for bear-watching, something no one was doing here until he started it in 2001.”
The kind of economic change that Tofino has experienced does not come without growing pains. Business owners tell of difficulties finding staff willing to relocate to a place where the closest community large enough to have a movie theatre is three hours by car. And while the Wickaninnish and other resorts provide staff accommodations, housing availability is a perennial problem for many.
Some business owners have gone as far as splitting on the purchase of homes for employees to share.
“A lot of people are having to squeeze in,” says Mayor Osborne. “The municipality is working on a 55-unit residential project, but realistically that won’t come to fruition for a couple of years. In the meantime, we’ve approved temporary campgrounds, and people are staying in RVs and trailers, but those are still not ideal living conditions.”
The challenges are real, she says, but not insurmountable, and they’re adapting. These days, a lot of talk in town is about the future. With hundreds of thousands of people journeying to Tofino every year, how does it continue to attract visitors, new community members and businesses that match its values of respecting and upholding the beauty of the region, and doing so as sustainably as possible?
McDiarmid found his answer to that question more than two decades ago, when he proved people would flock to the Wickaninnish to submerge themselves in its proprietary blend of conscientious luxury, relaxation and in-your-face nature — where they can feel like they’ve connected with a place and a community, not that they’ve merely used it.
“People in Tofino really share the desire to support that,” he says. “Our mandate is not to bring as many people here as humanly possible. We know it’s better to have slow, steady, thoughtful development.”
The town’s growth is limited by its location on a small rocky peninsula, but its reputation also depends on preserving the near-intact wilderness and pockets of solitude that drew the hippies and other nature lovers through the decades.
“We’re in a remote place, so it’s only those who really want to be here who find their way to us,” says McDiarmid. “In another 20, 40 or 60 years, Tofino might have grown a bit, but we’ll still be a small town at the very end of the road.”