BC's Transportation Minister Todd Stone

No changes for “Circle Tour,” Transportation Minister to push for planning group

The MV Nimpkish will continue to ply the waters of the Discovery Coast “Connector” through the 2015 tourist season and beyond.

The MV Nimpkish will continue to ply the waters of the Discovery Coast “Connector” through the 2015 tourist season and beyond, according to BC’s Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

In a recent interview in Bella Coola with the Coast Mountain News, Stone indicated that there are no big changes in the works for the Discovery Coast Circle Tour for “the foreseeable future”.  He also said he will push for a “working group” to examine the future of the regional economy and the role of the Circle Tour marine link in that economy. He also accepted an invitation to visit Bella Coola officially.

The Minister, his wife, and three daughters were in Bella Coola for a “staycation” – a program that encourages British Columbians to take their vacations in their home province. This summer, the Stones chose to take the Discovery Coast Circle Tour from their home in Kamloops, to the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and back across to the Mainland (on the Nimpkish) at Bella Coola followed by the drive across the Chilcotin and south again home.

Stone defended the Discovery Coast Circle Tour change as necessary among many other cuts in BC Ferries services in order to reduce costs because increases in fares are at the breaking point.  The move is part of the drive to balance BC’s budget in spite of fears that it will devastate the tourism industry that has been developing along the Circle Tour for nearly two decades.

The Nimpkish replacement involves a transfer at Bella Bella from the Route #10 ferries between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert and takes a total of 16.5 hours, nine to 10 of them on the 16-car Nimpkish, the smallest and slowest vessel in the entire BC Ferries fleet sailing the third-longest route on the coast.

Stone noted that the Nimpkish will be capable of only three or four more years of service, and so, work on the longer term needs to progress now. When hearing that a working group dedicated to the Discovery Coast Ferry issue has not yet been formed (in spite of a promise in March to do so), the Minister said he would discuss this “as soon as possible” with Tourism and Small Business Minister Naomi Yamamoto. If such a group is formed, Stone committed to involving his ministry in this group.

He added that such a group “would have to be focused on the broader issue of economic development and tourism, not simply ferries and the Circle Tour.” One option to look at would be a public/private partnership, Stone said. Such a development would involve private entrepreneurs operating a financially sustainable marine link in the Circle Tour in cooperation with BC Ferries.

Defending his cancellation last November of Route #40, which involved direct sailings of the 115-car Queen of Chilliwack between Bella Coola and Port Hardy, Stone claimed the tourism industry was given the opportunity to provide information regarding bookings and reservations and the predicted loss of tourism business resulting from the ferry changes. He said decision-makers received little data to substantiate the claims that the industry would be devastated.  It was noted that no socio-economic impact study had been conducted prior to the announced cancellation.

With reference to a perceived need for a long-term economic strategy for the Central Coast region, Stone noted this would be in the purview of the Ministry of Jobs, Small Business and Tourism.

When invited to meet officially in Bella Coola with a broad-based group of community representatives such the one that met Yamamoto in April, Stone accepted, noting that other commitments might interfere until after the October-November sitting of the Legislature.

The Minister also expressed concern about the “negative publicity” that the Circle Tour is receiving generated by those campaigning against his Route #40 decision. Critics have charged that the decision was “ill-advised” (because it lacked an economic impact component), “badly timed” (because the resulting uncertainty led international tour operators to scratch the Discovery Coast from their packages), “short-sighted” (because it didn’t recognize the tourism potential of the region), and “badly managed” (because of the confusion around booking on the route for the 2014 season).

Stone said the negativity is damaging the industry by discouraging tourists from taking the Nimpkish.  “Those in the tourism industry who are criticizing the decision to use the Nimpkish as the connector vessel are discouraging travel and damaging their own businesses,” he said. “It takes a long time to build a reputation, but only a short while to ruin it, and a lot more time to get it back.”

He countered that the industry should be promoting travel on the vessel, pointing out features that make it capable of giving a close-up view of the shoreline, for example, the view of Mackenzie’s Rock and First Nations petroglyphs and pictographs – views not possible from a larger vessel. “These positive aspects of the Nimpkish should be promoted,” said Stone, “so that travellers have a more accurate description of what they should expect on board.”

For Stone’s impressions of his Nimpkish experience and his reaction to tourist complaints, see page 4.