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First Nations launch vision plan; ferry improvements targeted

Coastal First Nations, led by Aboriginal Tourism BC (AtBC), have launched a provincial plan to create a vision for tourism

Coastal First Nations, led by Aboriginal Tourism BC (AtBC), have launched a provincial plan to create a vision for tourism and economic development on British Columbia’s Central Coast.

In a recent meeting with Tourism Minister Shirley Bond and Transportation Minister Todd Stone, a lobby group of First Nations and tourism industry representatives received commitments from government to support a “vision” for the region “specifically focussing on tourism industry opportunities.”

Their brief to the ministers, presented by Bella Bella’s Heiltsuk Tribal Council represented by Central Coast Regional District (CCRD) Chair Reg Moody and AtBC’s Keith Henry, highlighted the need for “much improved and enhanced ferry service” as part of such a vision.

The group pointed to the “great strides” taken in diversifying local economies in recent years – particularly through ecotourism and aboriginal tourism – in accordance with a 2006 Land Use Plan developed collaboratively with the provincial government.

Consequently, aboriginal tourism revenues increased from $20 million provincially to $45 million between 2012 and 2014.  However, according to the lobby group, this economic growth was crippled on the Central Coast with an estimated reduction of 50 percent in annual visitors since the direct ferry service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola was cut after the 2013 tourist season.

The cut involved replacing direct sailings of a 115-vehicle ferry with a “connector” service requiring a transfer at Bella Bella and employing the 16-vehicle MV Nimpkish (a vessel not suited to the volume of traffic the tourism industry requires).  In their brief to the Ministers, the group argued, “We require some form of major, tourism-oriented ferry service to supply the volumes of visitors required to catalyze economic revitalization on the Central Coast.”

Recognizing the value in creating a “vision” for the region, the ministers agreed to support the formation of a “working group” – to be headed by Keith Henry, AtBC CEO at the time and now CEO of ATAC (Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada).

The group will also include staff from the relevant ministries. Once appointed, this group will work with BC Ferries and Destination BC (formerly Tourism British Columbia), proposing recommendations related to replacing the Nimpkish which is due to retire in 2017.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett, who attended the meeting with the Ministers and who spearheaded the effort to form such a group, is pleased with the development. Addressing the Cariboo Coast Chilcotin Tourism Association (CCCTA) later, Barnett said the decision to replace the former Route #40 with the “connector” service was “devastating” and “controversial.” But, she adds, the decision to form a working group is an “opportunity to create a tourism product that showcases the Coast, Vancouver Island, and the Chilcotin.” The region served by the Discovery Coast Circle Tour is “second to none,” she said.

Others involved in the meeting with the Ministers, hailed the AtBC initiative as positive. Pat Corbett, CCCTA Chair and a strong critic of the “connector” ferry service, described the vision initiative as “fundamental”, saying his group, the First Nations communities, TIABC, and the BC Hotels Association are highly supportive. He described the decision to put a choke hold on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour as “despicable” and “unacceptable,” saying the tourism industry “will not stop” in its efforts to have ferry service restored and enhanced.

Walt Judas, Chief Executive Officer of the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC), told the CCCTA meeting he is aware of a Chilcotin tourism operator whose business is down 85 per cent as a result of the diminished ferry service. He described much of the criticism related to the cut in ferry service as “stomping up and down,” saying that critics “haven’t been able to move the needle.”  But now, after two seasons of diminished service, “we see some doors opening.”

The new “vision” initiative is expected to call for two Central Coast ferry routes – one focussing on a direct Port Hardy-Bella Coola route involving a vessel and schedule that will appeal to tourists, similar to the one weekly sailing of the former Route #40 which saw a 71 per cent ridership.

The tourism industry views such a service necessary to satisfy the economy of scale needed to encourage investment in tourism which has great potential if the ferry service is viewed to be an essential infrastructure component for economic development.

The First Nations vision initiative is on the agenda of the BC Summit of First Nations where consensus was recently achieved on a move toward collaboration with the government and coastal regional districts.

The financing and composition of the new “working group” are currently under discussion.