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Tourism for the backpacker

Last Friday, I attended a meeting of the Sunshine Coast Tourism Partnership, an upstart group of tourism entrepreneurs from the Upper and Lower Coast.

Last Friday, I attended a meeting of the Sunshine Coast Tourism Partnership, an upstart group of tourism entrepreneurs from the Upper and Lower Coast. The room was full of ideas, mostly aimed at better marketing the Sunshine Coast to bring in those hard-earned shoulder-season tourism dollars and find ways to entice travel writers to write about Sunshine Coast lore.

But one idea in particular grabbed me: the southbound extension of the Sunshine Coast Trail as far as Langdale and the upgrading of trail amenities to make it a place for everyone, not just the hardcore hikers.

Here's the idea: take the 180-kilometre trail, push it further south, and select a few of the 24 existing access points (mainly forest service roads) as areas to begin building backcountry cabins. Hire adventurous staff to cook meals and fix beds for weary trekkers to sleep in. Employ others as "sherpas" to pack hiking gear from hut to hut, freeing up hikers to travel lightly if they so choose, by carrying just day packs.

This isn't just some Ralph Waldo Emerson fantasy: these kind of cabins can be found all over Europe, in the Alps, the Pyrenees and other mountain ranges. They call them mountain refuges or alpine huts, and they can range from high-altitude, high-class hostels to glorified cattle sheds. This is something that the Coast could really use. While these kinds of deluxe trail systems won't attract the Fortune 500 crowd - nor should they - they will kill two birds with one stone: bring in a few tourist dollars, while implementing the healthy-living principles of ActNow B.C.

At the same time, tourists could discover a real sense of community on the trails. In my hiking experience, the more remote the trails, the more incredibly friendly are the people found on them. Eagle Walz of Tourism Powell River presented the idea last Friday and hinted the trail could, in time, become an alpine cousin of Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail. He said the trail currently sees anywhere from 100 to 1,000 visits each year, but with good marketing and a reservation system in place, it could have 10,000 visitors. Casual hikers and even non-hikers could be persuaded to give it a try by the promise of short day-hike sections with a hot meal and a hot tub waiting at the end. Sections of the trail could be made accessible to the disabled, giving everyone the chance to get out and enjoy it.

There's no reason why everyone shouldn't be able to enjoy this aspect of the Coast.

"Visualize hiking through old growth, then staying in a resort in the middle of the wilderness," Walz said. It's a nice thought and would be a great way of celebrating the still-overlooked natural assets of the Coast - especially for those who aren't seeking the creature comforts of a $200 a night bed and breakfast room with an ocean view.

The bottom line is too few of us are aware of the fantastic restorative effect of experiencing wilderness firsthand. The physicality of working up a sweat and the unfettered thrilling freedom of picking your way along a rocky ridge is something that can restore my spirits and defragment my information-overloaded brain. It just might have the same effect on the average tourist.