Vancouver, Canada (AFP) July 2, 2008
Great Bear Rainforest does not appear on any official map, but the name evoking native myths and legends is key to protecting western Canada's bears, whales, eagles and salmon.
Once written off as the "mid-coast timber supply area", the sprawling 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) of vast wilderness is fast attracting eco-tourists as environmentalists seek to protect it from logging and mining.
Bounded on the west by ocean fjords and winding inlets reaching deep into dense forest and the Coast Mountain range to the east, the remote central and northern coastline of British Columbia is one of the largest and last intact temperate rainforests on earth.
As well as being the traditional land of the aboriginal people, it is home to fin, humpback and killer whales, eagles and three kinds of bears -- grizzly, black and the Kermode or "Spirit" bear, as local legend calls the massive white bears.
A series of conservation treaties have been put in place in recent years between aboriginals, the provincial and federal governments and environmental organizations.
Foreign trophy hunters were banished 30 months ago when environmental groups bought out a commercial guiding company, said biologist Misty MacDuffee of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
And now even the bears are unwittingly participating in the new "eco-economy" having mostly lost their fear of people, and are now oblivious to tourists watching them as they feed.
British Columbia eco-tourism "is the most rapidly growing sector in the tourism industry," said Chris Genovali of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
As yet no one has done formal statistics of how many tourists have visited the Great Bear Rainforest, he added.
Eco-tourism is defined by being environmentally sustainable, educational, and the idea "you have to leave something behind in the communities you're traveling through," said Kevin Smith.
-- 'Eco-tourism is looking really good right now' --
Smith has taught eco-tourism at a provincial college and owns Maple Leaf Adventures, a luxury sail adventure company operating the 28-meter (92-foot) schooner Maple Leaf.
"We work as much as possible in sourcing the local economy, sourcing services and food from the local economy," added Charlene Barringham of Blue Water Adventures, which also operates a tall sailing ship.
The new kind of "fair trade" tourism is giving an economic boost to some of the area's nearly 3,000 aboriginal residents, called First Nations in Western Canada, said Marven Robinson.
"Eco-tourism is looking really good right now, and it's only going to expand for our people," said Robinson, a Gitga'at native who is an elected council representative of the Hartley Bay Indian band and a licensed guide.
Several hundred tourists have booked passages on commercial sailing tours in the area, many older traditional fishing lodges in remote areas now offer "eco-tour" vacations with wildlife viewing and cultural expeditions, and untold numbers arrive in personal sailboats.
Others just book a seat on the regular British Columbia ferries then make their own way into the wilderness with kayaks.
Through agreements between the industry and aboriginal leaders, tourist companies hire an aboriginal guide each time tourists stop to view bears or other wildlife.
Robinson said he has guided visitors from the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada in the past year.
The guides also teach local history and culture, and view hidden cultural artifacts such as longhouses and art that are hundreds or thousands of years old.
Ironically, most tourists traveling through the area only glimpse its culture and wildlife from the distant decks of cruise ships that ply the coast between the US states of Washington and Alaska each summer.
Closer contact requires a journey of 650 kilometers (400 miles) by small plane, provincial ferry or boat, from the nearest city Vancouver, to one of the area's remote fishing and wildlife-viewing lodges, or to an area town such as Bella Bella, where tour operators of sailing boats pick up their clients.
But Genovali said environmentalists remain concerned about mining and forestry on the edges of the protected area, and also about poaching of wildlife by illegal hunters.
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