Harbour hospitality

After the downfall of the fishing industry, an outport on the southwest coast is turning to tourism to keep the community alive.

The town of Francois is only accessible by a ferry that runs out of Burgeo. There is no need for cars in Francois as the entire length of the community can be reached during a leisurely 20-minute stroll. Submitted photo

Sara-Dani Strickland
Kicker News

Susan Daw stood on the wharf as thick fog filled the Francois harbour, obstructing the view of the colourful saltbox houses that are home to its approximately 60 residents.

She had just arrived in the community after a four-hour journey on the Marine Voyager and was now stranded. There were no roads, no cell service, and no way out of the town until the ferry ran again the following morning.

As a tourism expert who has travelled all over the world, Daw’s latest adventure was unlike anything she had ever seen before.

“The fog lifted in Francois and I felt like I was in Jurassic Park,” said Daw.

A community built amongst fjords, Francois has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists in the last five years after photos began circulating on social media.

Christine Durnford has been living in Francois all her life. Back when the fishing industry was thriving, residents would gather at the wharf to greet their family returning from a hard day’s work. Now, residents like Durnford are gathering at the wharf to welcome tourists like Daw to the community.

Francois offers a variety of unique experiences for tourists. From coastal scenery, community kitchen parties, and the opportunity to connect with nature.

The most popular experience enjoyed by visitors is a hiking trail to the peak of the fjord, a spot the locals call the Friar.

The view from the Friar looks over the entire harbour, with St. Pierre and Miquelon visible on a sunny day, all while offering a panoramic view of the community below.

The future of the community has been questionable over the past decade. In a bid to save money, the provincial government has been offering money to resettle the residents to a larger centre.

Every vote to resettle ended with the majority voting to stay. Durnford, who voted to stay, believes the tourism value could force the government to back off.

“I do think there should be more advertising and to promote our little community rather than just focusing on resettlement,” said Durnford.

While tourism can’t solve every issue, says Daw, if done correctly, it could be the solution to easing resettlement talks.

“In a place as fragile as Francois, you have to plan tourism in a sustainable manner,” said Daw. “You can’t just open the floodgates. You have to think about the environment, and you have to think about the local community and what’s best for them.”

Christine Durnford has hosted a variety of guests in Francois, including Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. The iconic Canadian personality visited Francois in 2017 before passing away from pancreatic cancer in 2020. Submitted photo

The increased interest in Francois has kept Durnford busy. It started a few years ago when friends of hers would ask her to rent out their homes when they were away from the community.

Every time the ferry entered the harbour, Durnford was at the wharf to greet another new face. Knowing there weren’t enough places to accommodate visitors, she bought another property with her sister, Elizabeth, and established her own rental in 2020.

“Last year was unreal,” said Durnford. “We had a lot of people coming and going. We had two months, July and August, booked every night.”

Today’s traveller, says Daw, wants to experience something different than the sights of popular destinations like Disneyworld or Paris. She believes Francois is the perfect destination for those looking to explore nature and experience an intimate connection with locals.

“Francois is if not my number one, it’s my top three most incredible places I’ve ever visited in my life.” – Susan Daw

“I know when people come here, they really enjoy it,” said Durnford. “They don’t understand why we leave and go to our cabins; they think that we are in the best part of the world in this little community.”

If the community was forced to resettle, Daw believes it would be a major loss for the provincial tourism industry.

“I think it would be a real shame and we’d be losing one of our most valuable tourism assets in my mind,” said Daw.

With the ease of pandemic travel restrictions, Durnford is preparing for a busy tourism season. Most rentals in the area are already booked in addition to the possibility of a cruise ship visiting the town in June.

The upcoming visitors, says Daw, should prepare for an experience of a lifetime.

“Every place I’ve ever travelled in the entire world, Francois is if not my number 1, it’s my top three most incredible places I’ve ever visited in my life,” said Daw.

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