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Expanding a beach front frontier

Darryl Greer, Globe & Mail,  August,18, 2006

Big city life can be taxing at times, to say the least. But summertime affords people opportunities to cast off their urban shackles to search for leisure, recreation, or in more direct terms, places to go fishing and drink beer. In British Columbia, however, pristine recreational property comes at a price that many can't afford, unless one happens to be a Hollywood movie star or perhaps an oil company executive. But there may be some hope left for those with a relatively modest budget, and that hope is on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

"The Queen Charlottes have been a forgotten place in time," says Rudy Nielsen, owner of NIHO Land and Cattle Co. "It didn't really start taking off until about two years ago."

Mr. Nielsen's company is marketing several lots on the north coast of Graham island, near the community of Masset. On the company's website, properties range from $295,000 for a 3.73-hectare oceanfront lot to $950,000 for a 145-hectare lot bordering Naikoon Provincial Park. For those desiring a more modest summer dwelling, with a simple Google search one can find ocean-view homes in Port Clements south of Masset for under $100,000 in some cases.

However, low prices may not last very long, Mr. Nielsen warns. In the past, like many rural regions in the province, the islands' economies depended heavily on traditional industries such as fishing and logging. With the decline of the traditional industries, the islands have had to adapt by attracting tourists.

"I think you're going to see investment in the Queen Charlottes in the next three or four years," he said, adding that land prices will likely increase over the same period. "Tourism's starting to take over."

He snatched up the land he's selling over two decades ago in anticipation of a growing number of people seeking refuge in B.C.'s unspoiled wilderness, and he says it's already begun.

"You're starting to see people moving up there for recreational purposes," Mr. Nielsen said. "It's just an unspoiled place."

The scenery remains stunning, but one event has put damper on whatever land rush may be developing; the March sinking of the Queen of the North. Since the ferry went down in Wright Sound, accessing the islands has become much more difficult, according to Masset Mayor Barry Pages. A replacement boat has helped, Mr. Pages said, as well as recently added daily flights onto the island. But the flights are costly and the ferries are infrequent. "Tourism has been increasing quite a bit in the last five years, but the sinking of the Queen of the North has set us back at least five years, if not more," he said.

"We've gone from six boats a week to two boats a week...Tourists just can't get over here like they used to."

Despite the set-back, Mr. Pages says people are becoming more and more aware of the islands' potential. "The Queen Charlottes have been promoted and [tourism's] been getting bigger and bigger every year, but the Queen of the North hasn't helped keep that trend going" he said. "Hopefully, with a new boat coming in and some promotion, it'll get us back on the right track."

Mr. Pages also notes that Masset is no stranger to land grabs and real estate deals. In 1997, a large military base pulled out of the town, leaving 180 houses vacant, he said. They sold within a four months, bringing an influx of new people.

"Some [who bought the houses] were recreational, summer-type people, but there were quite a few who did move here and retire," he said. "It definitely changed the dynamic of the community."

Whether the change was for better or worse depends on who one asks, he says, but he tends to see it as a positive thing. Other recent positives in the community include a planned health care facility, as well as a revitalized fish mill that currently employs 100 people, he said.

Furthermore, he said house prices have stayed relatively cheap in Masset as well. "You can still buy a three-bedroom half of a duplex for $50,000, so that's pretty attractive to people," Mr. Pages said.

In addition to Masset, a few hours south lies the islands' administrative hub, Queen Charlotte City. While average house prices there, according to Mayor Carol Kulesha, hover around $150,000, they're still a steal compared to prices in Toronto or Vancouver.

"The prices are very reasonable," Ms. Kulesha said from her Queen Charlotte City home. "But we're also an airline trip or a ferry away from everyone.

The year-round isolation of island life is not for everyone, she points out, and the region is in need of people who want to live and work an island life, not just spend vacation time.

"What we're really looking for is people to come here and spend their year, not simply come for a vacation, but we welcome anyone," She said.

Moreover, she said visitors to the islands don't always get back home, but there's nothing sinister about it, and she should know.

"There are a number of people who have come for a look and changed their whole life around," she says. "I came for a visit, and never left."