The Horne Lake Caves has become a popular tourism destination here on Vancouver Island and has been under the management of Island Pacific Adventures Ltd. in the last 29 years. The tourism operator company is celebrating 30 years in business. — File photo

Horne Lake caves operator celebrate 30 years

Adventure company survive three decades in business in Parksville Qualicum Beach

When Island Pacific Adventures Ltd started 30 years, its owner Richard Varela didn’t expect his tourism business venture would last three decades.

Being an avid and passionate outdoors person, who loves fishing, hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling, mountain climbing and caving, Varela said he came up with an idea to turn his favourite pastimes and hobbies into a way to earn extra cash.

“I thought, imagine if I can get paid to do these, take people out to experience different places,” Varela recalled. “It was more of a dream.”

Varela was working full time at the Campbell River Airport when he decided to create a second job with a friend. They started a charter boat and scuba diving business in 1988, Island Pacific Adventures Ltd.

“My partner was a fishing guide and we both worked at the Campbell River Airport,” said Varela. “We saw how much fishing business was going through that place. His thing was fishing. My thing was land stuff, mountains, climbing, and caving. His thing took off first because the happening part of the economy in the market for tourism back then was salmon fishing.”

Varela focused on hiking in Strathcona Park, bringing people up to see the Comox Glacier. While applying for a user and guiding permit from BC Parks, they were made aware of the provincial government’s plan to contract out parks. They pounced on the opportunity and applied for it. Island Pacific Adventures Ltd got the job and went on to become the operators of the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

“It was the very beginning of actually a private company being able to operate within a provincial park,” said Varela. “Private companies bid on parks for services much the same way they do today. We’ve won it ever since.”

The tourism company, which is celebrating 30 years in business next year, has been managing the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park for 29 years now.

“It’s uncommon for an adventure company to last 10 years, let alone 30 years,” said Varela. We’re happy to have achieved that milestone. For an adventure company, it’s pretty rare.”

Varela said when they started the business, they didn’t imagine it would grow and survive this long.

Island Pacific Adventures has become an award-winning trend-setter in eco-tourism on Vancouver Island.

“For us, it was more of a way to pay for the fun of being in the mountains and out in the water,” said Varela. “Adventure guiding was new. Eco-tourism was not even a word yet. So we kind of had to forge our own paths in developing guiding standards and awareness in the tourism industry of our product.”

Caving was not as popular back then, said Varela, but they were able to make Horne Lake Caves into a unique tourism destination that attracts thousands of visitors each year.

“Most people thought of caves as scary and weird places to go,” he said. “Only the maximum adventurous people would go there. It was our mission to show how this wonderful British Columbia landscape could be presented to average park visitors.”

Varela said they made the protection of the fragile caves and its environment while operating a business within the provincial park system a primary goal and concern.

“We’ve done the same thing over the years to be a conservation focused operations,” said Varela. “We present the resource in a safe way. And to provide a great underground experience will help people learn and love that environment.”

Their objective is also to educate visitors in the hope that they can spread the word about the importance of protecting the caves.

“We act as a classroom to show how to preserve and protect the caves,” said Varela.

“There are seven caves within the provincial park but there are thousands of caves on Vancouver Island that are largely unprotected. The Island has the highest concentration of caves in all of Canada.”

In the 30 years, Varela said, they’ve educated more than 50,000 schoolchildren that toured the caves, and over a quarter of a million visitors.

The various innovations and work that Varela’s company has introduced and applied at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park has garnered them a spate of accolades and recognitions over the years. They include: 2002 “Best Natural Outdoor Site in BC” – Attractions Canada; 2004 “Raising the Bar” – Tourism Vancouver Island; 2006 “Power of Partners” – Tourism Vancouver Island; 2007 “Cooperative Marketing” Comox Valley Tourism; 2011 “Business of the Year” Parkville Chamber of Commerce; 2015 “Innovation of the Year” – Tourism Vancouver Island; 2015 “Remarkable Experience” – Destination BC; and 2017 Rennie / Clark Memorial Award – Service to Cave Protection.

Varela said the company could not have succeeded on its own without the support of the community and the partnerships they’ve forged with several groups and organizations that include BC Parks, Canadian Cave Conservancy, local cavers and stakeholders.

“When you combine the knowledge, the expertise, fundraising along with somebody who is willing to stay on site and operate and manage the park, that becomes a recipe for success,” said Varela. “Horne Lake Caves have become one of the shining examples of a park that manages its conservation and balances it with its park visitors use for the benefit of the community.’

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