Midway through the 2014 tourist season, tourism businesses along Highway 20 from end to end are hurting, according to a recent survey conducted by Bella Coola Valley Tourism. And the future for the industry may be even bleaker.
In a telephone survey of businesses stretching from the Bella Coola townsite to Riske Creek, nearly all reported business is down this summer – with estimates ranging from 10 to more than 90 percent. Those suffering most are businesses offering tours in addition to accommodations.
Especially suffering are those most dependent on advance bookings by international agencies wishing to book travellers on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour – a world-class adventure scuttled this season in cost-cutting measures recommended by BC Ferries and adopted by the BC government. This move involved replacing the MV Queen of Chilliwack with the much smaller MV Nimpkish that connects with the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert ferry at Bella Bella.
When asked if business was better or worse compared to business in 2013, only three reported business to be about the same, noting that their businesses were not highly dependent on the ferry service. One accommodator/tour operator reported an increase of 10 percent in business which was attributed to an advertising campaign and special offers for fly-in guests
Businesses hardest hit are those who have promoted largely through European agencies who used to schedule the Circle Tour as part of a three-week $15,000 “trip of a lifetime” to British Columbia – the type of booking that is done many months in advance.
This season, tourists and agents were unable to book on the Circle Tour until late April, which was too late for most international travellers. Consequently, European agents scratched the Circle Tour from their packages, and those travellers found elsewhere to go. Respondents to the BCVT survey indicated that much of the 2014 tourist traffic involves Canadian travellers.
Most of the businesses surveyed indicated that much of their operation – in some cases, 90 percent – has depended on the summer ferry service. Three of these, seasonal operators in the Chilcotin, said 65 to 98 percent of their business depended on ferry travellers, and the cancellation of Route #40 accounted for business losses of 40 to 90 percent.
One Chilcotin business has nights booked for 13 couples between now and mid-September. In 2013, this number was 130. After 21 years in business, this operator says the upside is that his wife can swim in the lake every day and they are planning an August vacation. They are considering closing down the operation entirely.
One Bella Coola tour operator whose business is 75 percent dependent on ferry traffic said business is down 75 percent at this point while another reported losses of 60 – 80 percent. A third, who offers both accommodation and tours, said his business, which is 70 percent ferry-dependent, is down a whopping 90 percent over last year.
The 2014 version of the Circle Tour is losing not only its international travellers. For instance, one seasonal operator who has catered to three tour buses each bringing 30 – 40 Canadian seniors on the Circle Tour for 14 summers has just done so for the last time. These tours, west from Williams Lake, involved stopping for lunch in the Chilcotin, overnighting at Nimpo Lake, going for a flight-seeing tour of the glaciers to the south, overnighting in Bella Coola, and heading out the channel and across Queen Charlotte Sound to Vancouver Island.
Although sailings on the Nimpkish are often full (at times to the point of overcrowding – raising concerns about safety), there are still plenty of rooms in the Valley and across the Chilcotin for additional ferry travellers. In fact, a recent BCVT inventory of Valley accommodations indicates ample space for the numbers travelling on the much larger Queen of Chilliwack in years gone by.
The business loss this season is only part of the gloom that has descended on the industry. With no indication from BC Ferries or the government that plans are under way to address the financial concerns of area businesses, some fear that the damage is much more far-reaching. Because international travel agencies require months and years to arrange tour packages that depend on reliable bookings, many won’t consider recommending travel involving BC Ferries – even if a more suitable service were put in place immediately.
Such agencies need guarantees of schedules and fares for as long as five years, and as one operator put it, BC Ferries and the BC government have created such a climate of uncertainty that “European tour operators won’t touch BC as a destination”.
Tourism businesses also fear the damage to the region’s reputation caused by the Route #40 cancellation and the Nimpkish replacement. Travellers trying to book on the Circle Tour are discovering that space is not available, and those who do make the voyage are complaining about the inconvenience of the 16 ½-hour trip from between Bella Coola and Port Hardy – nine hours of it on an inappropriate vessel arriving in Bella Coola at midnight.
While travellers arriving in Bella Coola on the Nimpkish are lavishing great praise on the crew for their efforts to make the experience enjoyable, many say they would not recommend the Nimpkish experience to others.
The Coast Mountain News plans to publish a comprehensive report on passenger reactions to the Nimpkish experience in the August 14 issue.