BC Transportation Minister Todd Stone remains unfazed in defending his decision to slash summer ferry service on the Central Coast – in spite of research that shows how devastating his decision has been.
During intense questioning in the Legislature earlier this week, Stone stood strongly behind his decision a year ago that resulted in losses of nearly $4 million in gross tourism revenues during the 2014 season and the equivalent of more than $3 million in annual GDP losses. These figures emerged from an economic impact study released this week, the first such study to focus on the Discovery Coast ferry service. (Other studies since the cuts to services all along the coast were announced last November have predicted huge economic losses province-wide.)
Stone has consistently countered opposition to his cuts by claiming they are necessary to make ferry fares affordable and to make the ferry services “sustainable”. To date, Stone has dismissed research pointing to the economic damage caused by the cuts, holding to his position that government has to make “tough” decisions. (The government did not conduct its own economic impact study before making the decisions to cut services based on BC Ferries recommendations.)
According to the recent study, commissioned by West Chilcotin Tourism Association and conducted by Larose Research and Strategy, the “Connector” service between Bella Coola and Bella Bella last summer lost $870,000 in direct taxes alone – far more than the $725,000 the ferry corporation was trying to save. The report concludes that “the region’s existing ferry service (the 2014 model) is unsustainable and has resulted in significant losses relative to the estimated operational savings.”
In the move to save money, the Discovery Coast service, which has operated between Bella Coola and Port Hardy since 1996, last summer employed the 16-car MV Nimpkish on the Bella Coola-Bella Bella leg of the journey, replacing the 115-car MV Queen of Chilliwack which had sailed directly between Port Hardy and Bella Coola in years gone by.
In addition to the economic losses incurred by the service cuts, the Larose Study also determined passenger satisfaction with the Nimpkish replacement was “low overall”. Analysing survey data collected from ferry travelers by Bella Coola Valley Tourism, the study found 84 per cent of passengers complained about the lack of comfort, amenities, and the length of the journey. On a scale used widely by the international tourism industry, the Nimpkish rated a score of minus 38 for international travelers where the industry average is plus 24 – a gap of 62 points.
This scale measures the likelihood that a product or service will receive bad publicity from a customer. The report concludes “the service shortcomings are likely to pose risks to the destination’s overall reputation and brand…the MV Nimpkish is simply too small and lacking in requisite amenities for such a lengthy journey.”
On average, visitor satisfaction scored 2.65 out of 5 on the Nimpkish survey compared with 4.17 out of 5 for BC Ferries overall. The Larose Study notes that negative comments are beginning to appear online on the most visited travel websites.
In responding to such negative concerns, Stone appears adamant over the suitability of the replacement vessel. Having taken the trip to Bella Coola on the Nimpkish last summer, and having seen the negative traveler reviews, Stone continues to insist that the Nimpkish is suitable if marketed properly. Responding to the Larose Study in the Legislature this week he blamed the tourism industry for “trash talking what is a very good tourist product”. When asked if he has a plan to “clean up the mess”, Stone told the Legislature he plans to “continue to attack rising fares” and to “squeeze underutilization out of the system”.
BC Ferries and Stone have argued that the former Route #40 Bella Coola-Port Hardy service was underutilized even though the one weekly sailing that appealed most to tourists had a ridership of 71 percent – among the most highly used sailings in the entire BC Ferries operation.
It is noteworthy that Stone has embellished his understanding of the impact his decision has had by stating that on his August trip to Bella Coola he “met with folks” in the region. In fact, his interaction with local folks involved little more than a newspaper interview. He also exaggerated the enjoyment of his family’s trip by erroneously claiming (in the Legislature) that he had seen grizzly bears and orcas from the Nimpkish.
To view the Larose Study, visit savethediscoverycoastferry.ca (Discovery Coast Tourism EIA).