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Bella Coola enjoys successful 2019 tourism season

The addition of the Northern Sea Wolf saw a big boost in this year’s tourism numbers
Chris Nelson leading a tour with Copper Sun Journeys and Gallery. 2019 was their busiest season yet (photo Bella Coola Valley Tourism)

The Valley enjoyed an influx of tourists this summer with Bella Coola Valley Tourism’s Visitor Information Booth reporting three times as many visitors this year as compared to 2018.

“This summer’s tourism season exceeded our expectations. The visitor center had three times the number of tourists compare to last year,” said BCVT President Tom Hermance. “For the first time in five years, cancellations were quickly filled.”

This was almost certainly due in part to the new ferry service aboard the Northern Sea Wolf, which now offers direct sailings from Port Hardy multiple times a week. The effects were felt in Port Hardy too, with tourism staff there also noticing a difference.

“I can definitely say that with the Northern Sea Wolf sailing direct to Bella Coola we have seen a major in-flux of visitors coming into our community this year than in the past,” said Sandra McLaughlin, Visitor Services Supervisor/Events Coordinator with the Port Hardy Chamber of Commerce. “We think it is a great service provided not just for visitors coming to B.C. but for the locals as well, and we hope it continues sailing directly to Bella Coola in the future.”

Accommodation providers were also reporting full houses, often leaning on each other to find rooms for guests. Tina Bak, owner of Bella Coola’s Eagle Lodge, said that her lodging was pretty much sold out every night.

“We were open this year from start to finish of the ferry season, from June 1 to October 7,” she said. “We were very busy this year, it was definitely way better than the years before.”

Leonard Ellis, owner of Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, experienced the same.

“The season was great,” Ellis shared. “I wish I was a little younger so I could do more tours, but accommodations were booked up and did as many tours as I could.”

Copper Sun Journeys and Gallery also had a great season; in fact it was their best yet.

“I am pleased to be able to say for the record that the 2019 tourism season was one of record activity for us. The month of September alone was the biggest September we have ever had. As we are co-located with the tourism booth, we see all of the visitor traffic, and I can affirm Tom’s statement that the volume of visitors (primarily from the ferry) has been triple past years,” said Keith Hamilton, President/CEO of Nunumus Management Limited. “We are grateful that the ferry service so long promised has been provided. A small issue I have is that the ferry service did not start until June, when we consider our tourism season begins in May. I know others will continue the dialogue with BC Ferries on this point, but I would hope the success of this season for them would translate into a further increase in service to include beginning the season in May going forward.”

While the influx of tourists has helped accommodation providers, Hermance is still seeing a gap in services, especially in the activities sector. While more businesses are taking up the challenge, there simply aren’t quite enough tourist activities offered just yet.

“There is a real need for more local accommodations and tour guides, and we do expect to see at least three new accommodations businesses next year,” said Hermance. “If anyone is still on the fence about starting up their own business, I encourage them to take the plunge. We wouldn’t want to see a large corporation come in to fill the void because it would funnel tourist dollars out of the Valley.”

Tessa Humphries, BC Ferries Manager, Communications, said the Northern Sea Wolf has had “a very successful first season.” The vessel transported more than 5,600 passengers and over 2,200 vehicles from June 3 - Sept. 30 (October stats from 1-10 weren’t available yet).

The vessel also played a key role in rescuing passengers from a plane crash on the central coast.

“The Northern Sea Wolf has proven to be more than a vital transportation connection to the Mid-Coast communities, said Humphries. “During its first season of direct service the vessel, its crew and customers played a key role in efforts to rescue plane crash survivors on Addenbroke Island on July 26.”

On July 26, the Northern Sea Wolf was charting its regular course when it was called to respond to a float plane crash on Addenbroke Island. The Captain immediately directed the vessel to the co-ordinates provided and began searching for the downed aircraft. As the first responder on scene, the Northern Sea Wolf put out a call for any medical professionals onboard. Two doctors were passengers on the vessel that day and volunteered without hesitation.

The crew quickly gathered all available medical supplies to load into the rescue boat. Along with one of the Northern Sea Wolf’s Deckhands, who is also an Occupational First Aid Attendant, the two medical professionals were then deployed from the vessel to the island.

They were picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter and transported to the site. As the island is covered in dense forest, the three responders had to bushwhack to the crash site, led by the Northern Sea Wolf Deckhand, who is an experienced woodsman.

The three responders were the first to access the crash site and acted heroically in providing vital and lifesaving medical attention to the survivors who were in serious to critical condition.

Over the course of the next several hours, more help arrived and after nearly four hours, the three individuals returned to the Northern Sea Wolf, which had been standing by for further assistance.

“BC Ferries wants to thank the doctors and Northern Sea Wolf Deckhand for their heroic efforts, our staff who used their training and experience to respond quickly, and to our passengers who understood the importance of the delay and supported BC Ferries’ efforts,” said Humphries.