The BC Government’s poorly thought out “plan” to replace the vessel that has plied the waters of the Central Coast for 16 summers is a good example of a much larger problem, according to Bella Coola Valley Tourism, a local association that advocates for the industry in the region.
In a recent statement repeating the government decision to replace the Queen of Chilliwack with the much smaller Nimpkish, Transportation Minister Todd Stone admitted that the plan would “impact communities along the Central Coast and in the Chilcotin.” But area tourism advocates see the decision as “a death knell” to the regional economy because it does not consider the overall value of tourism to the region.
The Queen of Chilliwack accommodates 115 cars, easily handles numerous overheights and RV’s, and offers comfortable seating and a variety of amenities including a cafeteria. The vessel accomplishes the direct sailing between Bella Coola and Port Hardy (the “Circle Route’s” marine link), in 12 or 13 hours.
The smaller Nimpkish, however, can transport only 16 cars, can handle only a few overheights and RV’s, and has no on-board amenities besides washrooms. It cannot sail to Vancouver Island, so its use involves a mid-route transfer and sailing times of 22 – 36 hours. This simply does not appeal to tourists who prefer a direct sailing.
The government’s plan to cut the direct sailings and mothball the Queen of Chilliwack is part of a much larger effort to cut $14 million in BC Ferries costs in the next two years. In his statement, Stone claims that the utilization of the Discovery Coast service has averaged 30 – 40 percent over the past decade, and BC Ferries figures show an average of 29.5 percent in 2012. However, these figures don’t tell the whole truth, according to Bella Coola Valley Tourism Vice-President Doug Baker.
In fact, the only direct sailing between the two terminals fully during daylight hours had a utilization rate of 71 percent. “This indicates the popularity of the one sailing best designed for tourists accessing the Great Bear Rainforest, the Chilcotin Plateau and Vancouver Island,” Baker says. The overall average was low because five of the six weekly sailings involved the awkward scheduling and indirect routing that would also result from the Nimpkish replacement plan.
Stone’s plan also includes pulling the Queen of Chilliwack out of service because, he says, the vessel is “nearing the end of its service life”.
“This would be a huge waste of taxpayer dollars,” argues Baker. He notes that in recent years, some $12 – $15 million has been spent refitting the vessel to extend its service life to at least 2017. “We were marketing on that premise, and expected nothing less from a government that campaigned on a “Strong Economy, Secure Tomorrow” slogan.”
The government’s replacement plan is based on recommendations by BC Ferries in the corporation’s push to cut costs, and does not consider the social and economic impact of the many recommendations – particularly the plan to scuttle the “Circle Route”.
“This points to the much larger problem,” Baker says. “That is: the lack of responsibility of the ferry corporation to the communities it is contracted to serve. Because BC Ferries operates as an independent corporation under contract with the government, it is not directly responsible to the public – while the BC Government is. Such disjointed management hurts people, businesses, and communities,” Baker says.
Bella Coola Valley Tourism and other industry groups across the province are alarmed about the economic impact of cutting the “Discovery Coast Circle Route”. With the collapse of resource-based industries in recent decades, coastal communities, the Chilcotin, and the Cariboo have come to rely more and more on tourism to drive the economy.
Since the government’s November announcement, the tourist industry has been unable to take bookings from travellers wishing to take the Circle Route this summer, and many fear looming foreclosures and bankruptcies for such businesses. The industry and communities are pushing for a halt to the plans for the 2014 season at least.
A recent study by the Tourism Industry Association of BC found that the “Discovery Coast” ferry generates over $5.6 million in revenue for the B.C. tourism industry annually and that discontinuing the service will result in the loss of $1.7 million in revenue for the region. The study also found that total provincial taxes generated by the route are almost $800,000, more than the $725,000 that BC Ferries claims it loses on the route.