Direct summer sailings aboard BC Ferries between Bella Coola and Port Hardy are a thing of the past, and the summer “Connector” service transferring passengers at Bella Bella is here to stay, according to BC Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone.
Addressing a June 25 meeting sponsored by the Williams Lake and District Chamber of Commerce, Stone said the BC government is to sign a contract with BC Ferries “within the next couple of weeks” in which the “connector” service will continue – employing the MV Nimpkish while the ferry corporation begins work on a new vessel. (The Nimpkish is due to retire in 2018.)
Stone vowed that he is “100 percent committed” to Route 10S, the summer service linking Bella Coola and Port Hardy by connecting in Bella Bella with Route 10 – the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert route. (This service has just begun its second season, following the cancellation of Route #40 which involved direct sailings for 16 summers). Stone was adamant that a direct sailing between Port Hardy and Bella Coola will not happen.
This prompted a somewhat heated exchange with Pat Corbett, President of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, who said the “connector” service “won’t work”, Stone said they would “have to agree to disagree” and that he is standing by his decision. Corbett noted that European tourism promoters are opposed to the “connector” which involves a much longer voyage than necessary to provide the marine link in the Discovery Coast Circle. For this reason, and because the Nimpkish is unsuitable for the sophisticated traveler, European tourism agencies are not promoting the region as a destination.
In response, Stone said he is willing to meet with representatives of the tourism industry, but charged that the industry had been asked for input before the elimination of Route #40 was made nearly two years ago, but the industry didn’t respond. (At the time the decision was made, Stone, a rookie in the BC Legislature, had been Minister for less than six months, and based his decision on recommendations from BC Ferries.)
He noted that Tourism Minister Naomi Yamamoto had visited the region to discuss the Discovery Coast Ferry with representatives of the tourism industry. This involved two meetings to discuss “mitigating” the damage done months after the decision was made. On another occasion, Stone noted that he too had traveled (on the Nimpkish with his family) to Bella Coola, where he “met with folks”. In fact, he met with the staff at the lodge where he stayed and with only two other people.
Since making his November 2013 decision to eliminate Route #40, Stone has repeatedly brushed off criticism and dismissed numerous studies conducted by the industry as well as the Union of BC Municipalities – all pointing to massive economic losses resulting from the predicted downturn in the tourism industry. Tourism businesses from Northern Vancouver Island, through the Bella Coola Valley, and across the Chilcotin have just entered a second season of hardship – some businesses reporting losses of as much as 85 percent.
Stone told the Chamber of Commerce group that the some have “overstated the devastation,” to which Chamber Executive Director Claudia Blair responded that she is hearing such reports from many businesses, and that the RVs in the parking lot outside were bound for Alaska – not for Highway 20 and the Discovery Coast Circle.
The 16-vehicle Nimpkish was deployed last summer to replace the much larger MV Queen of Chilliwack, which Stone and BC Ferries pulled out of service as a cost-cutting measure. As a result, tourists wanting to book the Circle Route this summer are no longer able to because the Nimpkish is full to capacity, so they are going elsewhere. Critics in the industry say Stone’s decision was “ill-informed, poorly timed, short-sighted, and badly managed”.
In the Chamber meeting, Stone said “clearly the capacity needs to be a bit more than right now.” He said a new vessel would be a “modern one with modern amenities”, a vessel we can be “pretty proud of.” Some $200,000 was spent refurbishing the Nimpkish last year to include potable water, complimentary food and beverages, and new bench-type seating. The three cramped washrooms are not accessible to wheelchairs.
Stone again blamed his critics for the negative publicity about the unsuitability of the Nimpkish as a vessel catering to tourists, referring to the trip his family made last August. “The impression was created that the Nimpkish was not safe, not comfortable, but every person on the vessel was happy,” he said. (On another occasion, Stone erroneously reported that his family had seen “grizzly bears and orcas” on their Nimpkish voyage – an event not recorded in social media postings they made after their midnight arrival in Bella Coola.)
He concluded his remarks by saying he wants to focus on the future, and that he will “continue to engage.” “There’s no unwinding what’s been done,” he added.
In his defence, Stone repeated his claim that the decision was a “tough” one – admitting that sounded “trite” – noting that it was made as part of the government’s effort to make the ferry system “sustainable.” Even so, he predicted that BC Ferries will “blow past the target” on costs this year, and the $180 million annual subsidy to the whole system might have to increase next year.
When it was noted that the marine link needs to sail on a reasonable schedule that is attractive to tourists, Stone responded: “That’s the input that needs to be heard and received loud and clear from the industry moving forward.” (Critics of BC Ferries have been calling for a better, tourist-friendly schedule ever since the Discovery Coast service was instated nearly 20 years ago.)
Regarding the notion of pursuing a Private Public Partnership (PPP) that would see the private sector providing the marine link, Stone said “we are very open-minded about that (PPP).” He added: “Absolutely we are pursuing that.”
“There is no doubt whatsoever,” he said, “that I think the private sector sees that there’s an opportunity here.” He said he has been in discussion with BC Ferries about this, and “we have been right in the driver’s seat in those discussions.” PPP proponents, however are looking for “even greater subsidies.” He added that the government is “exploring those options as well.”
At one point in his remarks, Stone said: “I am only human,” and I’m doing the best that I can.”
Responding to a request by Corbett, referring to a proposal from Bella Coola Valley Tourism and the West Chilcotin Tourism Association, Stone committed to approaching the Tourism Ministry to ask for $100,000 in “mitigation” funding to promote Bella Coola and the Chilcotin as tourist destinations. Stone described the request as “a good suggestion”. Last year, the government injected that amount into efforts to market tourism in the region, but the agency allocating the funds spent none on the Circle Route Nimpkish “Connector” because it was not deemed “export ready” by market standards.
Stone reserved his remarks about the Discovery Coast Ferry until the end of his presentation in which he reviewed his recently announced 10-year transportation plan. A focus of this plan, he said, is the role of transportation and infrastructure in economic development which now has been “strategically targeted” with a focus that is more “intense than before.”
Critics of the cancellation of Route #40 have argued that the tourism generated by a direct route between Bella Coola and Port Hardy is an economic development issue taking into account the immense tourism potential of the region and deserves more attention than it has received.