Bleak summer for coastal ferry remake

There was an uproar in the B.C. legislature this spring when Transportation Minister Todd Stone went ahead with $19 million in cuts.

VICTORIA – There was an uproar in the B.C. legislature this spring when Transportation Minister Todd Stone went ahead with $19 million in cuts to low-usage coastal ferry routes.

The plan had been laid out in detail before last year’s election.

It targeted sailings where ridership was in the low teens or even single digits.

On some sailings the Transport Canadamandated crew outnumbered the passengers.

Despite the cries of doom, most of the sailing reductions have been managed – with one glaring exception.

The Discovery Coast Circle Tour route saw its ferry from Port Hardy to Bella Coola replaced, using the smallest vessel in the BC Ferries fleet, the open-decked Nimpkish.

This move wasn’t a direct response to low usage, a chronic issue with some of the minor route sailings along the coast.

It was to avoid ordering a replacement for the Queen of Chilliwack, which sailed directly between Port Hardy and Bella Coola.

This summer the first leg was consolidated with the Northern Expedition, the vessel that replaced the doomed Queen of the North on the Inside Passage run up to Prince Rupert. At Bella Bella, after a layover of a couple of hours, the Nimpkish took over with space for 16 standard vehicles on its deck and a midnight arrival time in Bella Coola.

The direct route had been mainly used by European tourists, who sailed from the Lower Mainland to Victoria, drove the length of the Island, ferried to Bella Coola and drove through the rugged Chilcotin to Williams Lake and back down south to complete the circle tour.

The new route incorporated stops in remote outposts Ocean Falls and Shearwater, making it even longer. Warnings came early.

That’s where 90 per cent of the [BC Ferries] money is being lost, on the milk runs, and that’s the part they are keeping,” Petrus Rykes, a tourism operator at Anahim Lake for 40 years, said in March.

The part they’ve cancelled was at 70 per cent capacity, the second highest of all the fleet routes.”

Reports of a bad slump have come to pass. The changes meant bookings couldn’t be made until April, too late for most international travelers. A survey by Bella Coola Valley Tourism in mid-summer found most operators losing business, from 10 to 90 per cent.

A bus tour of Canadian seniors heading west from Williams Lake was terminated after 14 years.

One tourism operator on Highway 20 is considering closing down. Stone and his family took the new route themselves in early August, with the minister offering sunny reports on his blog.

Stone summed up his experience this way:

At the end of the day, my assessment is that the Nimpkish is a good tourism product if tourists are made fully aware as to the type of service it provides. If correct expectations are set, I believe the Nimpkish can be marketed as a valuable tourism component of the Discovery Coast Circle Tour.

The decision to do this rests squarely on the shoulders of the tourism industry and tourism operators who need to decide whether or not they want this service to work, to grow and to be viable in order to capture a share of the thousands of international tourists looking for exactly the kind of adventure the Nimpkish provides.”

Got that, Discovery Coast tourism folks? If this milk run doesn’t work next year, it will be your fault. Heck, the Nimpkish has free snacks and drinks for your 10-hour voyage, much of it in the dark.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbct

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