Working Group Co-Chair Pat Corbett with Nuxalk Nation Chief Councillor Wally Webber at the ferry announcement on Tuesday

First-ever partnership means direct ferry to Bella Coola back as of 2018

A partnership of First Nations, communities, and the tourism industry has led to a long-awaited enhancement of summer ferry service

A first-ever partnership of First Nations, communities, and the tourism industry has led to a long-awaited enhancement of summer ferry service on the BC mid-coast.

Premier Christy Clark announced in Vancouver Tuesday that her government and BC Ferries have committed to a seasonal direct ferry service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, and a search is underway for an appropriate used vessel to make that happen before the summer tourist season in 2018.  The move will revitalize the marine link in the “Discovery Coast Circle Tour” which enables travel between the north end of Highway 19 on Vancouver Island and the west end of Highway 20 at Bella Coola.

The Premier’s announcement, attended by representatives of the Mid-Coast Working Group, follows numerous meetings between the group and government in response to the elimination of BC Ferries Route 40 nearly three years ago.  The move is in support of Aboriginal tourism and the mid-coast economy.  The announcement credited Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia (AtBC) with the “groundwork” for the decision.  This was “instrumental in developing this workable, sustainable option”.

The Working Group is headed by Co-chairs Pat Corbett, a director of the BC Hotel Association, and Keith Henry, President and CEO of the Aboriginal Tourism of Canada (ATAC), whose involvement provides a national dimension to the work of the group, which, according to Henry is “the largest and most effective Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal partnership I have ever seen in Canada, not just BC.”

“Aboriginal tourism along BC’s coast is yet to realize its full potential,” Henry said, and the announcement “marks an important step in our work to build new experiences and market this incredible destination to the world.”  Henry pointed to Nuxalk projects under way (the motel and restaurant project on the Townsite, and the Copper Sun Gallery and Journeys) as examples of Aboriginal tourism initiatives.  Henry reminded Clark that she had recently stated that the Working Group had been the “game changer” in discussions of mid-coast ferry service.

In making her announcement, Premier Clark attributed the decision to BC’s “strong, diverse, and growing economy” which has enabled the government “to invest in unique tourism opportunities along the mid-coast”.   She said the decision to introduce “the right ferry service, using the right vessel” allows British Columbia to “take advantage of the increasing numbers of international visitors who come here to experience one of the world’s jewels – the Great Bear Rainforest”, the largest piece of intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world, 85% of which was given full protection by the government early this year.  Clark said the new service will be “high end”.

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone, who attended the announcement, said in a prepared statement that the new service “will provide access for visitors to the unique and unparalleled beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest, now protected by the Province, and create additional interest in tourism along the mid-coast and through the Cariboo-Chilcotin for years to come.”

A total of 4.9 million international visitors came to B.C. in 2015, an increase of 7.9% over the previous year.  Aboriginal tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors, with more than 300 businesses province-wide, but few of them on the Central Coast.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett, who is responsible for rural development in the Liberal government, and who was instrumental in the formation of the Working Group, noted that the improved ferry service will provide more travel options for visitors and “may also encourage the development of new cultural and eco-tourism options in the region, which will help create jobs and build our economy.”

Also in attendance was Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training.  Bond was instrumental in promoting the Working Group’s vision within government.

Group Co-Chair Pat Corbett, Past Chair of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association (CCCTA), said that association “is proud to align with such a diverse group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal partners on this journey to build a new vision for the Great Bear Rainforest.”  He said the announcement “reflects the power of partnership, and will lead to job creation and economic development in a vital part of rural British Columbia.”

In addition to AtBC and the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) and Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) First Nations, the Group involves the BC Hotel Association, the Tourism Industry Association of BC as well as regional and local tourism groups, Jonview Canada (Canada’s leading tour operator, which brings billions of dollars’ worth of tourism business into Canada every year), and municipalities and communities along the Circle Tour between Vancouver Island and the Cariboo.

Local participants in the Working Group are Nuxalk Chief Wally Webber, Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett, West Chilcotin Tourism Association President Petrus Rykes, Bella Coola Valley Tourism President Ernest Hall, and local tourism businessmen Leonard Ellis, Beat Steiner, and Craig Widsten.

The 2013 decision to eliminate BC Ferries Route 40, which had operated since 1996, was part of a coast-wide effort to reduce BC Ferries costs.  It involved replacing the summer Bella Coola-Port Hardy direct sailings with a service requiring a transfer at Bella Bella.  It also replaced the 115-car MV Queen of Chilliwack with the 16-car MV Nimpkish, a move that severely choked the marine link in the “Discovery Coast Circle Tour”, resulting in widespread criticism from the tourism industry, affected communities, and international travelers.

While the replacement vessel and its capacity have yet to be determined, discussion is under way to build a vessel with a capacity of about 50 vehicles to replace the Nimpkish, due to retire in 2019.  In announcing this decision, the government pledged to work with BC Ferries and AtBC, and continue in partnership with the Mid-Coast Working Group to determine how best to serve the tourism sector and communities of the mid-coast while ensuring visitors enjoy the comfort and amenities they might expect for this length of voyage.  The local tourism and business community have advocated over the two decades since the Discovery Coast Passage route was first instated for a direct Bella Coola-Port Hardy service involving a suitable vessel scheduled to appeal to international tourists.

Tuesday’s announcement included two other measures to enhance transportation in the region:  Nearly $200,000 in funding to build a terminal building at the Bella Bella airport and the $6.2 million recently spent on paving Highway 20 in the Lower Bella Coola Valley and east of Anahim Lake.