Updated article coming in 2020

An influx of tourist activity in Howe Sound presents economic benefits as well as an opportunity for environmental stewardship and education. There is a need to balance environmental protection and community well-being with this booming economic driver.

Authors: Bob Turner, Geoscientist and Citizen Scientist, Bowen Island, Howe Sound

Karin Bodtker, MRM, Manager, Coastal Ocean Health Initiative, Coastal Ocean Research Institute

Contributors: Steve Nicol, Lions Gate Consulting and members of two discussion tables at June 17, 2016 workshop

Reviewer: Kirby Brown, General Manager, Sea to Sky Gondola, Squamish

Banner Photo Credit: Tracey Saxby

What’s happening?


“An unusual combination of West Coast wilderness and accessibility…” – New York Times
Squamish made the New York Times travel section in 2015 as a “place to go.” Tourism has surged recently along the Sea to Sky highway corridor, fueled by an upgrade to Highway 99 and international attention brought by the 2010 Olympics. Marine recreation is growing with a trend toward multiple activities in a single outing (e.g., kayaking and hiking, or rock climbing and wind surfing). For example, visitation to B.C. Parks in Howe Sound grew to over two million in 2014-2015, a 48-percent increase compared to average visitation prior to 2010 (Figure 1). There are several new attractions that are partly responsible for increased tourism and recreation. The Sea to Sky Gondola near Squamish opened in 2014, and drew about 300,000 people in the first year. In 2015, the Sea to Sky Marine Trail for kayakers was officially opened with six new campsites, and a new scuba diving destination in Halkett Bay Marine Park was created. An example of new tourism synergy is the Land and Sea Bus tour from Vancouver that links Sewell’s Sea Safari, via rigid hull inflatable boats, from Horseshoe Bay to Britannia with bus connections to tours of Shannon Falls, Sea to Sky Gondola, and Britannia Mine Museum before returning by bus down Highway 99.
Visits to B.C. Parks in Howe Sound grew to over two million in 2014-2015 — almost 50 percent higher than average visitation prior to 2010. 

Figure 1: Annual visitation in B.C. Parks in the Howe Sound region, 2004-05 to 2014-15.

Recent announcements suggest this tourism and recreation upswing will continue into the future. In January 2016, the provincial government granted an environmental assessment certificate for the proposed Garibaldi and Squamish all season ski resort on Brohm Ridge, 15 kilometers north of Squamish. In February 2016, the District of Squamish announced an oceanfront residential and commercial development that will provide Squamish with an enhanced connection to the Howe Sound marine environment with a waterfront park and walks, wind sports beach, boat launches, and sailing center. In May 2016, a proposal for a 14-hectare waterfront resort with lodge across Highway 99 from Shannon Falls was announced.

In 2016, the Province announced that work was underway on a feasibility study for a highway connection to the Sunshine Coast, including potential routes through Howe Sound. It is hard to overstate the potential impacts on tourism and recreation activities (and more broadly on future development and the environment) if a new highway transportation corridor were established through Howe Sound.

Why is it important?


Sewell's Sea Safari provides visitors access to the rich marine wildlife in Howe Sound. (Photo: Jessica Heydahl)

Sewell’s Sea Safari provides visitors access to the rich marine wildlife in Howe Sound. (Photo: Jessica Heydahl)

Tourism supports an important and growing component of the Howe Sound economy. Over the past three decades, there has been a marked shift from the forestry and industrial sector to services and tourism. While the economic value of tourism is acknowledged and documented by the Province, the economic value of recreation, which is often self-guided, is not. Quantifying the value of tourism and recreation that takes place in Howe Sound is fraught with challenges. Many small operators are involved, including some located outside of Howe Sound but who use it as a destination (e.g., whale watching tours or fishing charters that originate in Greater Vancouver).

In 2014, tourism to the Province of B.C. contributed more to provincial gross domestic product (GDP) than the forestry and agriculture and fish primary resource industries, but less than the mining, oil and gas extraction industry. A study on the economic benefits of Provincial Parks showed that every dollar invested in the protected areas system generates $8.42 in visitor spending on food, entertainment, transportation and other goods and services.

“The ecosystem service of recreation and tourism refers to the ability of natural areas to attract people to engage in recreational activities, often leading to increased property values and attractiveness for business. Tourism and recreation are related to, but not totally encompassed by, aesthetic values. … We calculated the total value of aesthetic and recreational services in the study area to range from approximately $100 million to $3 billion per year.”



Sound Investment: Measuring the Return on Howe Sound’s Ecosystem Assets (Michelle Molnar, 2015, David Suzuki Foundation)

Similarly, outdoor recreation exposes the grandeur of place. Workshop participants from recreation organizations felt strongly that recreation was more than entertainment; it makes people fall in love with the place and want to care for it. Tourism and recreation opportunities can be used to raise awareness about current issues, conflicts, and sustainability challenges. The benefits range from improved personal wellbeing from being outdoors, and possibly physical activity, to the economic contributions; some of which flow directly to tourism providers and outfitters, while some flow indirectly to hotels, restaurants, and the service industry.

First Nations Connections


Aboriginal cultures are a major draw for tourism in B.C. Aboriginal Tourism BC fosters First Nations tourism and provides access to aboriginal cultural events, services, and accommodations. Capacity building within Aboriginal tourism is provided regionally by the Native Education College in Vancouver. Within Howe Sound, the most accessible link to Indigenous cultures is the Cultural Journey along the Sea to Sky Highway between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler.

A series of seven roadside kiosks tell the story of Squamish and Líl’wat First Nations, their traditional land use, place names, and supernatural beings. This Cultural Journey connects with the Squamish Líl’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler where visitors engage with Indigenous culture through demonstrations, exhibits, and film. First Nations seek to generate awareness, interest and activity in aboriginal cultural tourism.

Picture 1

The Cultural Journey kiosks along the Sea to Sky Highway have distinctive roofs in the shape of traditional woven cedar-bark hats. (Photo: Bob Turner)

Sockeye salmon. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)

Sockeye salmon. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium)


“I will never forget one day, I asked the late Harry Moody how to shape a racing canoe. He said to me, ‘What is the fastest fish?’ I jokingly said a bullhead. ‘No,’ he said, ‘A sockeye salmon. You have to shape your canoe like a sockeye.'” – Sxayilḵin Siyám (Chief Cedric Billy), Squamish Nation

What is the current status?


Increasing volumes of visitors and recreationists, increasing demand for access to the marine environment and land-based recreational activities, limited existing access, and limited capacity to deal with the growing demand typify the current state in Howe Sound. Tourist activities are mainly accessible along Highway 99, from population centers around the Sound, and from the Lower Mainland. Highway 99 provides access to five popular provincial parks, Furry Creek golf course, and the Sea to Sky Gondola and Britannia Mine Museum. Major Vancouver-based operators provide a variety of bus tours along Highway 99. Whale watching operators out of Vancouver and Richmond increased their visits to Howe Sound in 2015 and 2016 drawn by an increase in sightings of transient orcas. In addition, some cruise ship passengers get an introduction to Howe Sound through an interpretation program on board, as they pass by or cruise around Bowen Island to take advantage of scenery.

Tourism operators and recreation association representatives discussed a number of challenges related to the increased demand for and participation in tourism activities in Howe Sound:

  • Access to the ocean in Howe Sound is limited by insufficient access points. Further, limited shore facilities, marinas and boating amenities and overcrowding of available sites constrains tourism and recreation growth. The rugged shores of Howe Sound, limited public shoreline, and a shortage of marina berth space all contribute to the problem. The limited number and types of access points also leads to conflict and competition among users and to conflict between users and private land owners.
  • Increasing private ownership of recreational property along the shorelines can discourage public recreational use of the foreshore and/or lead to conflicts.
  • The very activities that bring visitors closer to the environment and introduce a stewardship ethic to many can also have negative impacts on the marine and terrestrial ecosystems, especially when participation exceeds carrying capacity. Problems and impacts noted include misuse/overuse of Ministry of Forests recreation sites, unlicensed use of boats and ignorance of best practices, unlicensed fishing and poaching, lack of enforcement of existing regulations, untenured docks and foreshore structures, damage to sensitive intertidal zones by dragging surf boards, kayaks and other boats, oil and fuel spills and unregulated sewage discharge around marinas, disturbance of marine wildlife, and the introduction of invasive species.
  • People working in the tourism and recreation industries increasingly struggle to find affordable housing in the area.
  • Marine emergency response capacity is limited within the Sound.
  • There is no cohesion in terms of policy that is comprehensive to the Sound. Each jurisdiction makes its own rules that may differ from the neighboring jurisdiction.
Commercial whale watching boats and orcas along the shores of Bowen Island. (Photo: Anonymous, April 9, 2015)

Figure 2. Commercial whale watching boats and orcas along the shores of Bowen Island. (Photo: Anonymous, April 9, 2015)

Marine mammals are particularly vulnerable to tourism pressures. A number of Bowen Islanders have expressed concerns that boats observing orcas along its shores in 2015 and 2016 have not observed the 100 meter distance guidelines for whale watching (e.g., Figure 2). Given the early stages and rapid growth of marine-based tourism and recreation in Howe Sound, there is an opportunity for tourism operators to be leaders and educators regarding best practices, instilling a culture of stewardship among visitors and recreationists.

What can you do?



Individual and Organization Actions:

  • Encourage your local marina to achieve a Blue Flag designation. In May 2016, Gibsons Marina received a Blue Flag environmental designation for its marina operations, the first in Howe Sound. Blue Flag is a certification by the Foundation for Environmental Education that sets standards for marinas using criteria for water quality, safety, environmental education, and general environmental management.
  • Encourage your marina to provide sanitary waste pump-out facilities. If you operate a marina, make these facilities available.
  • Boaters can also fly the Blue Flag on their vessels by taking the Blue Flag Pledge of Conduct, available at the Gibsons Marina.
  • Encourage your local municipality, regional district, or B.C. Park to achieve a Blue Flag designation for its beaches. A Blue Flag beach meets criteria for water quality, environmental management, environmental education, and safety and services. At present, no Howe Sound beaches have been designated.
  • Protect marine mammals by adhering to guidelines. Report violations of the Be Whale Wise Guidelines in Canada to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 1-800-465-4336.
  • Report whale and dolphin sightings to Wild Whales. You can report by phone, your Wild Whales app on your smartphone, or at the online website. This database of sightings assists researchers in understanding whale and dolphin habitat in Howe Sound and the Salish Sea, and can provide advice to management of vessel traffic or other human activities.
  • If you fish, obtain a fishing license. Be informed of fishing regulations and the location of no-fish Rockfish Conservation Areas. Report poaching at: Department of Fisheries and Oceans: Observe, Record, Report (ORR) Line, 1-800-465-4336; Province of B.C.: Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP), 1-877-952-7277
  • Organizations and societies can keep track of club membership and use of recreational infrastructure or resources to ensure the growth in demand is documented.
  • Educate yourself on safe boating practices. If you operate a boat be sure you obtain your B.C. Boat License.


Government Actions and Policy:

  • Survey existing docks and foreshore structures and enforce related tenure restrictions.
  • Develop and publish a map of sensitive habitat where boat anchoring is prohibited.
  • Identify and develop additional marine recreation sites and controlled/managed access points to help address increasing demand.
  • Develop thresholds or limits for certain activities or areas, along with associated management and regulatory tools.
  • Develop and promote regulations and guidelines for safe distances between boaters and other recreationists, wildlife, and sensitive habitats such as the small islets in Howe Sound.
  • Maintain recreation infrastructure.
  • Require sanitary waste pump-out facilities at more marinas and outstations.
  • Rename “Crown land” to “public land” to acknowledge ownership and invite stewardship.
  • Ministry of Forests, when planning forested areas to cut, account for the viewscapes of boaters on the water in the Sound, and hikers on mountain trails or at the gondola, in addition to viewpoints along Highway 99.
  • Increase monitoring and enforcement on the water in Howe Sound.
  • Support and encourage volunteer enforcement options including marine and river steward programs.
  • Develop coastal management policy, legislation and regulations to manage recreational use of Crown lands and the foreshore and keep the benefits of recreation and tourism sustainable.

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