“Up close and personal” or “furious and outraged?” Minister and passengers have different views

BC Transportation Minister Todd Stone is concerned about passenger complaints regarding their MV Nimpkish experiences this summer.

BC Transportation Minister Todd Stone is concerned about passenger complaints regarding their MV Nimpkish experiences this summer. After learning that many passengers have had bad experiences on the vessel that has replaced the Queen of Chilliwack as part of the marine link to Vancouver Island this summer, Stone told the Coast Mountain News he will raise such concerns directly with BC Ferries, noting there “is always room for further improvement”

Stone, in Bella Coola as part of his family vacation travelling the Discovery Coast Circle Tour, arrived on the Nimpkish after what he described as “an entirely positive and unique family adventure that provided an up close and personal interaction with nature.”

He noted that much of the trip was in the daylight and that only the last two hours or so were in darkness. His three daughters, aged 4, 7, and 10, were especially thrilled by a group of dolphins that accompanied the ferry in Dean Channel. He said the vessel was full, and that many of the other passengers from Europe and the US had told him they were enjoying the voyage and would do it again.  His wife Chantelle described the vessel as “cozy” and “comfortable” with free food.

She said the Nimpkish was “a spectacular way to see some of our North Coast ruggedness.”

Since cancelling BC Ferries Route #40, which involved two direct weekly sailings of the 115-car Queen of Chilliwack between Bella Coola and Port Hardy during the summer months, Stone and BC Ferries have been under fire for replacing the direct service with the “connector” service between Bella Bella and Bella Coola. This service employs the 16-car Nimpkish connecting with the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert route. The eastbound sailings stop at Ocean Falls (where the vessel is unloaded, turned around, and reloaded) and arrive in Bella Coola at midnight nine or ten hours after the Bella Bella boarding.

Most of the sailings on the smaller vessel are full to capacity, and many tourists wishing to book are turned away.  (The Nimpkish is the smallest and slowest vessel in the BC Ferries fleet sailing on the third-longest route.)

This spring, BC Ferries installed new seating and complimentary snack and beverage service on the vessel, which is equipped with one cramped washroom that is inaccessible to anyone with very impaired mobility.  Through prompting by Bella Coola Valley Tourism and the Nimpkish crew, photos of the Valley and region now play on big screens in the lounges, and tourist information is available on board.

In a Coast Mountain News interview, which Stone requested, the Minister was presented with a nine-page document containing transcriptions of comments submitted by Nimpkish passengers who have responded to a questionnaire being administered by Bella Coola Valley Tourism.

Among these, a passenger with mobility issues wrote: “I was distressed.” Complaining about the “appalling lack of facilities” he continued:  “Shame on you BC Ferries for such inadequate service at such a high cost. You have driven a nail in the coffin of the Coast-Cariboo tourism.”  (Fares for a vehicle and two passengers between Port Hardy and Bella Coola – a 16.5-hour trip –  cost $738.)

Another passenger wrote “The facilities for food were on a par with a Salvation Army soup kitchen!” and another charged: “The free food was unhealthy garbage.”

Another wrote “This was a trip of a lifetime and we would love to recommend it to others – but WILL NOT.” Another wrote, “The Nimpkish would fail to meet the standards of most tourists.”  A traveller from Scotland wrote, “This ferry will inevitably drive tourists away” saying she would not recommend the trip to anyone else.

“The last thing that small tourist towns like Bella Coola need is cutting its main and popular ferry service,” wrote someone else. A passenger living in Victoria wrote:  “It’s time to support our tourism industry better. That is where the jobs are!!” and another (from England) posted: “If you want to destroy tourism in this wonderful area then you are going the right way about it.”  This person said this was “the worst part of our trip to Canada.” A tourist from Scotland said she was “furious” and “outraged” over her Discovery Coast “Connector” experience.

(It must be noted that the questionnaire comments praise the crew of the Nimpkish in glowing terms, one noting that the crew “seemed really embarrassed.” They “tried valiantly,” wrote another, and another wrote the crew were “embarrassed about what was happening.”)

The Minister appeared disturbed and surprised that many Nimpkish passengers do not share his views on the suitability of the vessel and the need to market it more accurately. He noted, however, that he had read 10 pages of positive comments in the guest book on-board the Nimpkish.

After reading the comments, Stone said: “There is clearly more work for BC Ferries to do to more clearly establish expectations with passengers before they book, and to better facilitate reservations.”

Stone said of his Nimpkish experience: The voyage was “far better” than critics claim, “with excellent viewing areas, free snacks and refreshments and a recently renovated seating area.”

After the interview, the Stone family, impressed by the scenic splendour of the Bella Coola Valley on a beautiful summer afternoon, headed out Highway 20 for a picnic in Tweedsmuir Park and the drive up The Hill and out across the Chilcotin.  Their trip is documented in the Minister’s blog: http://toddstonemla.wordpress.com.

Note: A comprehensive report on passenger reactions to the Nimpkish experience planned for the current issue was delayed by Minister Stone’s visit and is now scheduled to appear in a future issue of the Coast Mountain News.