The B.C. government has purchased a used Greek ferry for a reported $12.6M to revive the Port Hardy – Bella Coola direct sailing that was stripped from the coast nearly four years ago.
Since that time communities from the Central Coast and the Interior have banded together to pressure the government to reinstate the route, citing a major blow to tourism operators from the central coast all the way to the heart of the province.
The vessel, currently named the Aqua Spirit, is considered an entirely new route.
“Route 28 is a new direct sailing route from Port Hardy to Bella Coola and will be running five times per week,” said Darin Guenette Manager, Public Affairs with BC Ferries. “The Nimpkish will continue to serve the Central Coast until the new vessel is employed, then it will be retired.”
The Mid-Coast Working group, an assembly of representatives from tourism operators, local First Nations and local community representatives put in thousands of hours to lobby the government to ensure the route was replaced. They were granted confirmation last September, and have since turned their attention to getting a better schedule and more attention from BC Ferries marketing department.
“It is the province that determines whether or not a community needs ferry service,” said Guenette. “Once this is determined BC Ferries then contracts to the province. The Central Coast had been asking for service since 2014, citing the importance of tourism to the region, and we have developed this entirely new route to accommodate that.”
Summer service is scheduled to begin in 2018 and the 10-hour sailing will run from mid-June through mid-September, with the possibility of extension.
“The province sets the policy regarding the terms of service and the length of the season,” said Guenette. “If the province thinks it should be extended, then that’s what we’ll do.”
The B.C. government release stated that the vessel “will accommodate more than 35 vehicles and 150 passengers and crew.” This is considerably less than the Queen of Chilliwack’s 115 vehicle capacity. That ship was sold in 2015 and is now operating in Fiji.
Guenette said they are still unsure of the capacity of the vessel both in terms of vehicles and cars. In Greece it is listed as having a carrying capacity of 60 vehicles, but things could turn out much differently in North America.
“We estimate it will carry somewhere between 35 and 60 cars with 150 passengers and crew,” said Guenette. “However, all of this is dependent on deck space, what type of renovations are done, and making sure everything complies with Transport Canada standards.”
The new vessel was built in 2000 and BC Ferries will take possession of the ship in August 2017. It will undergo major upgrades from the fall of 2017 through the spring of 2018. All passenger areas will be refurbished including lounges, the galley, washrooms and outer-deck spaces.
While a new ship is a major first step, the lack of marketing from BC Ferries was often cited as a significant reason for the demise of Route 40, and tourism operators are now keen to make sure these issues are addressed. Guenette said plans are in the work to package the route with vacations and sell it with tourism.
“BC Ferries marketing department plans to do anything we can to sell this product,” he said. “We want everyone to know about this route.”
This is all good news for Bella Coola Valley Tourism, who worked tirelessly to see this route reinstated.
“Bella Coola Valley Tourism applauds the recent announcements by BC Ferries. Our requests for direct service from Port Hardy, passage during daylight hours, increased sailings and use of a larger, faster vessel have all been answered by this decision,” said President Tom Hermance. “Visitor demographics for scenic wilderness areas such as Bella Coola are among the fastest growing segments of the tourism industry. Route 28 will increase tourism from all over the world by offering easier access to Bella Coola and the Great Bear Rainforest. This announcement is an incredible opportunity for BC’s tourism industry and for local businesses along the Central Coast.”
Now comes the fun part: naming the vessel and fashioning it with art.
“We have no name yet but BC Ferries will be engaging with the mid-coast community regarding the sailing schedule and the naming of the vessel,” said Guenette.
Guenette said the recent debut of Salish art on BC Ferries three newest ships, the Salish Class Ferries, was very well-received, and plans are in the works for art on this new vessel.
“We worked with the First Peoples Cultural Council to help us commission artists for those vessels and we might do something similar with Route 28,” he said. “We’re really excited.”