There’s one thing the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Ambassadors have in common: they all like to meet people.
Some of the Ambassadors—who are all volunteers—have been doing this for a long time, except of course for the COVID-19 pause that hit us all over the past couple of years. And some of them are proud of the countries they’ve “collected” as Ambassadors.
The program started in 2004 or 2005 with a couple of dozen volunteers. The idea was to be visible in places like Cathedral Grove, McLean Mill National Historic Site and the No. 7 steam train when it was running or on the MV Frances Barkley to answer travellers’ questions and share information about Port Alberni. At the time those in the tourism industry realized that at least a million people were travelling through Port Alberni on the way to the west coast resorts in Tofino and Ucluelet without taking the time to see what Port Alberni had to offer.
Volunteers wear bright yellow jackets with question marks on the back, so they captured the visible part of the plan well enough.
Bud Munsil has been an Ambassador for eight years and loves making people feel welcome. “I’m always amazed at the number of countries in the world that show up,” he says.
Munsil said the most surprising place a tourist said they were from was Tasmania, southeast of Australia. He met people from 84 different countries one year.
Peter Kaegi, a relatively new volunteer with fewer than five years served, said the most surprising place tourists he met were from was Argentina. “They were unique,” he said. “You get tonnes of Europeans, some Americans and a lot of Canadians.
“That was the biggest surprise,” said Kaegi. “I didn’t realize (the west coast) was such an international draw.”
Kaegi moved to the Alberni Valley in 2017 and joined the Ambassadors to learn more about his new community and to share what he learned. “For me, it was an education because I was a newbie.”
Another thing Kaegi said he learned is that travellers are eager to break up their drive to the west coast, and appreciate learning about places to stop off the main highway.
Dawna MacMillan was eager to get back to the Grove to meet people from all over the world. “And they’ll be coming here this year, that’s for sure,” she said.
Ian Staton is more pragmatic. He wanted to meet a diverse group of people, but he also realized forestry isn’t the steady economic generator it once was for the Alberni Valley, and something more was needed. “Our motels and hotels, restaurants and activities, it’s important they are exposed to opportunities,” says Staton, who has been an Ambassador for nine years.
Unexpected and complete highway closures to the west coast since 2019 were eye-openers for some, Staton said. Tourists weren’t able to travel to their west coast accommodations, and were scrambling to find somewhere else to stay and something else to do until Highway 4 reopened at Kennedy Lake. Port Alberni delivered.
“People didn’t know until you pointed it out, what Port Alberni has to offer.”
To some, the Ambassadors might not seem like what they are doing is important. To others—from people on a mission to have tacos for supper or looking for late-afternoon accommodation—they make a difference. Staton said he met a woman from England, the country of his birth, and passed on his phone number to her in case she needed help while she was on the Island.
“About two days later I got an email from her mother saying thank you very much.”
There’s one more point about the Ambassadors program that bears repeating: they are at Cathedral Grove to provide tourists with information about Port Alberni businesses—not for traffic control.
Unfortunately, with the recent “pedestrian calming” changes the transportation ministry installed at the park, it seems like all anyone wants the “Yellow Jackets” to do is deal with parking.
— Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.