CAMPBELL RIVER -- A First Nation tour operator on the North Island is making a big investment, hoping 2021 will be a far better year for sharing wildlife encounters with visitors.

Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours previously partnered with various companies to bring visitors to Bute Inlet to view grizzly bears, but the company is now expanding this year to also bring their own visitors to see the bears and also to do whale watching tours.

"This is an exciting new growth period for Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours and the nation," said the tour company's tourism development officer, JP Obbagy.

The company didn't operate in 2020 due to the pandemic but is hoping to rebound their business and expand this year.

"We decided to not run tours with the uncertainty of COVID and the unknowns with the infection rates, so we didn't operate in 2020 for tours," Obbagy said. "We made the decision to keep our membership safe."

The company is opening a new welcome centre and gift shop at 1344 Island Hwy in Campbell River next to the Coastal Community Credit Union. Obbagy says the centre is expected to be opened by the middle of May. That's when they're also hoping to begin operation of two new vessels that are currently being manufactured.

"They're landing craft so we'll be able to take them onto beaches that don't have a dock, and it allows us to extend our cultural program and make it much more immersive for our guests," he said.

"We can go into the traditional territory and possibly get into Church house, our old village site."

The vessels will each have 24 seats, but will be restricted to 12 visitors to follow COVID protocols. Guests will be able to choose from either sitting in one of the 12 seats in the cabin or from another 12 seats on the front deck.

"It will help us be more friendly, but now we can cater to all sorts of guests and groups," said Obbagy. "If we have multi-generational groups where grandparents want to enjoy some comfort inside the cabin and the younger members of the family want to be out on the front deck in the fresh air (they can do that)."

Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours normally sees about 75 to 80 per cent of its visitors come from international locations. But this year, Obbagy says they'll have to operate with customers coming from just British Columbia and hopefully other parts of Canada by the fall.

Kirsten Soder, executive director of Destination Campbell River, says local wildlife tour operators will once again have a restricted clientele this year.

"We definitely are relying on British Columbians and Canadians travelling to discover our corner of the world," she said.

The tourism body is about to introduce a marketing campaign to help Campbell River compete against other destinations who are also trying to entice visitors back.

"The marketplace is going to be very noisy when everyone is clamouring to get our guests back," Soder said. "So, because our adventure tourism sector is such a strong selling proposition for the regions, we absolutely weave that into absolutely everything we do."

Campaigns inviting families to visit the Campbell River region should start to appear as early as next week.