Despite people being “encouraged” to remain in our home regions to lessen the spread of virulent COVID-19 variants, Easter weekend brought a fair number of visitors eager to experience Qualicum Beach’s natural splendour and unique small town charm. Unfortunately, QB’s doors were locked. While our local eateries did another masterful pivot on short notice to provide take-away meals and patio service, the visitor amenities operated by the Town and by the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce were shut tight.
We played tourist in our hometown to get an idea of how first-time visitors might see QB. Picture this. You drive into town, excited to arrive in Qualicum Beach. The first thing you do is look for information and a washroom. Our Visitor Info Centre, located on QB’s iconic waterfront, was closed for the entire Easter weekend — as it is every weekend. But that’s just the beginning of this sad, surprising story. We apologize for the length of this article in advance, but come along for the ride; we think you will be interested in what the tour reveals.
Easter Sunday at the QB Waterfront was glorious. Fabulous frothy white breakers were rolling in, all up and down the expanse of sandy beach, under a crystal-clear blue sky. It was busy. Basking in the spring sunshine, young families, teens and beach goers of all ages rejoiced in the scene, picnicking at tables, lounging on the grass or sitting on a big driftwood log. The seasonal waterfront eatery Shore, which had just opened, was serving both take-out and meals on the deck overlooking the pounding ocean breakers.
Over the long weekend we observed people going up to the QB Visitor Info Centre many times, only to discover that it was locked. On Good Friday, the only take-away visitor information to be found in Qualicum Beach was in two plexiglass holders hanging on the outside wall of the Visitor Centre, one holding just a single copy of an outdated (2020) Discovery Guide for our area, secured with an elastic band, the corners of its pages blowing in the wind, and the other containing two (2) visitor maps. By Easter Sunday, the map holder was empty. We did find one copy of the Discovery Guide at a gas station, but it was a 2019 edition! Is QB going backwards?
Signage littering the front of the QB Visitor Centre announced that TOILETS were available 500 metres down the beach, that-away. We noticed several visitors, bereft of anywhere to shelter from the squalls on Saturday, were relegated to reading maps in their cars next to the shuttered Visitor Centre. Tofino, with a population of about 2,000, manages to keep their Visitor Info Centre open daily, all year round except over Christmas, and even little Ladysmith manages to operate on Saturdays. Why isn’t Qualicum Beach able to do that?
Downtown, visitors and locals alike who needed to use a public washroom were also met with locked doors — despite signs on the public washrooms located between the Leigh House walkway connecting West Second Avenue and the Quality Foods parking lot stating “Washroom(s) open 8am – 5pm daily.” Nope, both washroom doors were locked tight — all weekend. Perplexed and dismayed, people walked away slightly more desperate than they’d normally be because, the week before Easter, BC’s Public Health Officer shuttered all eateries across BC, making those washrooms unavailable as well. We could find no signage anywhere in town to help a visitor (or local) find a public washroom (other than the sign at the locked Visitor Info Centre pointing only to the beach washrooms).
Thankfully the QB Waterfront washrooms were open. Housed in an attractive rustic-modern building, the washrooms were clean and airy. This relatively new building would be a good additional location for maps and guides for visitors to take away, especially if the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want to bother opening up the QB Visitor Info Centre on weekends.
Instead someone decided, inexplicably, that this brand-new building should have a tack board on all four external walls. Here, all manner of sundry notices have accumulated: business cards, used equipment, outdated notices about missing persons, and hand-written ads selling goods or services, most of which are not the kind visitors are seeking. Apparently not managed by anyone, these notice boards are tattered and disintegrating in the weather. Who installs open air bulletin boards at the ocean to hold flimsy paper notices? Unattractive and unnecessary in this location, these tack(y) notice boards detract from our town’s premier asset and namesake — the beach.
How do QB’s visitor services stack up against other communities?
Once the weekend was over and everyone had gone back home, we were finally allowed to visit the Qualicum Beach Visitor Info Centre. It was not a welcoming experience. The entrance is cluttered and in disarray; the stairs leading to the entrance are partially blocked by a large garbage can and a sandwich board warning of COVID restrictions.
On the verandah next to the front door, we are greeted with a large flower box filled with dead plants that weren’t cleared away last year. It would take less than 10 minutes to dispose of those dead plants — even bare earth would be better than this unkempt and embarrassing mess. This is the “best face” we present to visitors?? A sign on the door states in large black letters that masks must be worn “FOR THE SAFETY OF STAFF AND VISITORS.” Given the order of priority, it was hard not to feel that visitors are an after-thought, and perhaps not even wanted.
Stepping inside QB’s Visitor Info Centre is like entering the decrepit house of a couple of aging bachelor brothers. It’s dingy, and bereft of style (somehow both cluttered and sparse at the same time). The first thing one sees, right in the middle of the cramped room, is a cheap little table with hand sanitizer and a waste basket lined with a plastic bag.
Wait… cramped, dingy? Yes. Some local residents may recall that QB’s Visitor Info Centre used to be a spacious, airy building with windows on multiple sides overlooking our storied beach and the ocean and mountain views beyond. No more. The Chamber of Commerce has walled off more than half of the building — and all the windows — for themselves. The Chamber’s staff offices are replete with nice furniture and state of the art computers and office equipment to go along with their stellar beach and ocean views. Now, visitors can no longer admire the views, as they once did, while browsing at Qualicum Beach’s Visitor Info Centre. QB’s loss, Chamber’s gain.
The information and ambience in the Visitor Centre section is meager and wanting: more copies of the outdated 2020 Discovery Guide for our area; brochures for the Qualicum Beach Parks and Recreation Guide stacked upside down in the rack; a dead houseplant on a shelf next to a brochure that asks “How are we doing?;” and a few musty photos of Q Beach (poorly lit and ineptly displayed) taken a few years back when QB had considerably more mature native trees.
When we asked about places to eat in QB, we were told “the best place to eat in town is the restaurant at the Qualicum Beach Inn,” a claim some people would dispute. Favoritism such as this does a disservice to visitors, to the owners and staff of our other fine eateries who struggle to keep going during the pandemic, and to QB’s quality of life and our economic prosperity.
Parksville’s effort to encourage tourism outstrips QB’s
Disappointed by the QB Visitor Info Centre, we headed down the highway to see what Parksville’s Visitor Centre had to offer. Even before we walked in the door, it was obvious this was no faded, down-at-the-heels operation like the QB Visitor Centre.
Immediately, one’s eye is drawn to the Parksville Visitor Centre even from a distance by the inviting display outside the front entrance: two red Muskoka chairs, emblematic of Parksville’s reputation as a family vacation destination.
As we approached the front door, we were surprised to see copies of the 2021 (!) Discovery Guide. Yes, copious quantities of the current visitor guide for our area were available in Parksville’s Visitor Centre, both inside AND outside where they are available in enclosed holders located under the eaves, fully protected from the weather. Why doesn’t Qualicum Beach have any 2021 Discovery Guides?
Inside, the Parksville Visitor Centre features a striking natural wood cathedral ceiling with soaring windows on both sides of the building. It was a pleasure to browse the well organized and broad array of current guides, maps, magazines and pamphlets, and the tasteful, locally sourced crafts and souvenirs displayed in a pleasing, professional manner. Quality artwork adorned the walls, while a video monitor and other visual displays celebrated the area’s assets. It’s hard to tell the same person is reponsible for operating both of these Visitor Info Centres.
Leaving Parksville, we noted a road sign proclaiming the city’s national Communities in Bloom awards. And then it clicked. Where was QB’s sign?
Qualicum Beach has a longer and more illustrious record as a winner in that prestigious competition, and until a couple of years ago, a similar sign was proudly displayed on Memorial Avenue as drivers entered the town.
QB’s Communities in Bloom sign has since been removed. If Parksville can retain and maintain such a tribute to its community, should Qualicum Beach not be able to do the same?
Back in QB, the writing is on the wall… er, the signs
Driving back on Highway 19 to Qualicum Beach, we notice that the modest but charming Welcome to Qualicum Beach sign that used to be located beside the exit to QB, and visible from the Inland Highway, has also been removed. Now, the only signs for Qualicum Beach that travellers see from the Inland Highway are the standard-issue provincial highway directional signs and services icons. Again we couldn’t help but compare how Parksville erected a large, stylish sign at the east entrance to the city, very visible to highway passers-by who may be encouraged to make a future visit to Parksville. QB’s highway Welcome sign disappeared about the same time as Parksville’s sign was installed. Why would Qualicum Beach toss away the same opportunity to announce its presence to the thousands of motorists who pass by on Vancouver Island’s main highway each day?
As we turn off the Inland Highway onto the approach to Qualicum Beach, half a kilometre towards town, we see a new Welcome to Qualicum Beach sign in front of a rest stop pullout — a rest stop that has no washrooms. The “Welcome” pullout features four billboards displaying stylized maps cluttered with ads for various businesses. While these billboards might inform people already coming to QB, they do nothing to attract the interest of Inland Highway travelers or of vacationers coming from or going to Tofino on Highway 4.
Though relatively new, these billboards contain outdated and erroneous information. According to these billboards, QB’s Visitor Info Centre is open 7 days a week, but only from May to September. Huh?
One billboard describes a 2019 festival in Parksville, and the now-defunct Thursday evening Summer Market in QB. What really caught the eye though, was the billboard featuring a collage of a dozen photos with the caption SHOP PLAY EAT STAY — QUALICUM BEACH. Smack dab in the centre of that billboard is a photo of… Parksville’s Sand Castle competition?!? What’s that doing in the centre of a billboard that supposedly exists to promote Qualicum Beach?
Circling back to the Visitor Info Centre at the QB Waterfront, we notice that the Chamber of Commerce has installed a new map of Qualicum Beach on the outside of the Visitor Centre. This new map is also ringed with ads, billboard style, like the billboards at the town’s “Welcome” pullout. Talk about eye-opening. We were stunned to see that key parts of Qualicum Beach have been erased or omitted on the Chamber of Commerce’s version of reality: the Chartwell and Eaglecrest residential areas do not exist; the wooded lands of QB’s iconic Estate Properties appear to have been entirely removed (clear cut?), leaving only the Milner Gardens property; and Eaglecrest Golf Course has been completely erased, both from the map and from the map’s legend. However, the Pheasant Glen Golf Course is featured prominently.
Do the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce members who presumably benefit from, and may have partially paid for, this misleading representation of Qualicum Beach, actually support this particular altered version of reality?
Do they even know about it? Was the public told about the plan to alter the map, or allowed an opportunity to comment before these billboards were installed, or was this change quietly imposed on the community with little or no public consultation? Whose brush is Qualicum Beach being painted with?
Chamber of Commerce spins false narratives about Qualicum Beach
We started to hear indignant comments as soon as the CHEK News promotional interview with a QB Chamber of Commerce representative aired on Easter weekend. The purported reason for the CHEK interview was to inform people about a “branding” survey for Qualicum Beach being undertaken by the Chamber.
“Who is this guy?,” someone asked. “Embarassing,” was another comment. “What a crock,” said another, in reference to a comment by the Chamber of Commerce rep that QB now has a menswear store. QB had a menswear store for many years on Second Avenue West a couple doors down from where a new store opened up last year — not to mention that Qualicum Beach also has other stores that sell men’s clothing, something the Chamber representative appeared not to know. When we watched the interview, we also noted that the image of the QB Visitor Info Centre supplied for the CHEK interview is many years out of date, taken when the building was well run and kept in good condition, not as it looks now.
Who is the guy spreading misinformation about Qualicum Beach in this CHEK interview? Kim Burden. Mr. Burden is a long-time resident of Parksville and a former City of Parksville councillor, first elected in a 2016 mid-term by-election but who lost his bid for re-election in October 2018. Burden is also the Executive Director of the Parksville & District Chamber of Commerce. A couple years ago, the board of the Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce decided it would be a good idea to hire Mr. Burden to also be the QB Chamber’s Executive Director.
We see the results of the QB Chamber decision. Qualicum Beach’s reputation, amenities and services have been downgraded and neglected while Parksville’s efforts soar and sparkle. Second Opinion QB published an article in the summer of 2020 about the lax care and attention towards QB’s amenities and image, Town beautification kicks into gear — at the end of August? In an October 2020 article, Wake up call for QB tourism, we revealed that last summer’s two-page promotional spread in the Vancouver Sun mentioned plenty of Parksville highlights but not a single word about Qualicum Beach, other than the “Quirky Qualicum” headline.
Where was the outrage from the QB Chamber members, as well as from the many other commercial enterprises in QB who choose not to be Chamber members? Or the Town of Qualicum Beach, which provides taxpayer funding to the Chamber. Now Kim Burden is trying to convince the public that he and the Chamber of Commerce are the best people to lead a branding campaign for Qualicum Beach, funded by QB tax dollars? Are we to trust this Trojan horse, given Mr. Burden’s track record over the last several years?
The decision by the board of the QB Chamber of Commerce to hire Kim Burden to direct Qualicum Beach’s image, reputation and future tourism economy is mystifying. There’s no good reason why Qualicum Beach, with a population of 10,000 people, should not be able to manage our own brand, reputation and tourism initiatives.
Questions abound. Is this what the residents and businesses in Qualicum Beach want? Does Qualicum Beach feel comfortable or well-served having a Parksville resident determine how Qualicum Beach’s brand, reputation and tourism services are structured, when he has a competing responsibility to promote Parksville, a community as different from Qualicum Beach as chalk is from cheese? Why is the Chamber of Commerce — whose principal duty and obligation is the commercial success of its members — the only community group involved in developing and managing Qualicum Beach’s “brand?”
WATCH CHEK TV interview: Road to Recovery: Qualicum Beach growing, working to rebrand itself