Critics of the BC government’s “Nimpkish Solution” to the financial woes of BC Ferries are not at all surprised by traveler responses to the failed 2014 Bella Bella – Bella Coola connector ferry service that replaced the MV Queen of Chilliwack on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour.
Says Doug Baker, President of Bella Coola Valley Tourism (BCVT), which conducted a traveler questionnaire this summer: “We’ve known all along that this inferior ferry would not meet the expectations of visitors – even with the amazing hospitality of the crew. The journey is long and expensive and demands a higher quality experience.” (The 16.5-hour journey between Bella Coola and Port Hardy cost $738 for a car and two passengers.)
On the BCVT questionnaire, many travelers already booked on the Circle Tour said there was no room on the tiny 16-car vessel and they had to change their plans drastically. Those who did squeeze on soon discovered they were cramped for nine hours on a boat with uncomfortably low bus-bench seating, little space to stretch their legs, one difficult-to-access washroom at the bottom of the steep, narrow stairway to the car deck, constant shuddering and engine noise, and a minimal, complimentary, food service. Many expressed safety concerns.
On the questionnaire, many said their “Nimpkish Experience” was redeemed only by the spectacular scenery, the favourable weather, and the efforts of the vessel’s crew who did their best in an embarrassing situation. Many travelers decried the damage being done to the tourism industry and the effect this would have on the obviously struggling economy.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone has defended his “Nimpkish Solution”, saying more accurate marketing of the Nimpkish will address traveler complaints by reducing their expectations. He says the tourism industry is responsible for making the Nimpkish work as the Circle Tour marine link and blames critics for damage being done to the Circle Tour’s reputation.
Baker says the government must recognize the years of effort that the Bella Coola Valley and the Chilcotin have already put into marketing the Circle Tour, adding, “We can accommodate many more travellers than the Nimpkish can deliver.” He says: “The Nimpkish doesn’t need better marketing: It’s already full.” At times, Baker has called the little vessel “a toy in a fjord”.
Bella Coola businessman John Morton, who facilitated unfruitful discussions last spring with Tourism Minister Naomi Yamamoto, says: “a properly operated and skillfully marketed connector service, with an adequate vessel, could be successful.” He says government and BC Ferries must “abandon the pretense” that the Nimpkish is suitable. Until then, he says, “tourism in the region will continue to founder.”
A study last January by the Tourism Industry of BC determined the changes then being planned would have a major economic impact on tourism province-wide and that the Discovery Coast Tour was “actually profitable” based on provincial taxes generated.
Petrus Rykes, Chair of the Save the Discovery Coast Ferry lobby group, describes the Nimpkish replacement as “a huge blow to our international credibility” and risks “turning this region into a third-world country”. He fears for the damage done to the reputation of the regional tourism industry by the bad reviews of this summer’s Circle Tour experience.
Darla Blake, CCRD (Central Coast Regional District) administrator, says she expected some negative traveler reaction to their Nimpkish experiences, but she is “amazed” by the comments on the BCVT questionnaire. She says, “It is time to stop all the talking and start putting together some strategies to return an appropriate service”. She calls the 2014 service “untenable” and hopes government will act to prevent “more damage to our tourism reputation and deepening of the current negative economic impact to our region.”
Blake and CCRD Chair Reg Moody attended the September annual convention of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) at which mayors and regional districts province-wide unanimously called on government to restore BC Ferries service and fares to 2013 levels. They also told government to conduct a socioeconomic study of the 2013 cutbacks and to fund ferries as an extension of the highway system. They cited a need to cooperate with communities to develop a long-term ferry strategy. A recently released UBCM study showed BC Ferries’ management decisions have resulted in a $2.3 billion loss to the BC economy over the past 10 years.
Following the UBCM Convention, both Blake and Moody described meetings with government ministers as “frustrating”.
Transportation Minister Stone dismissed the UBCM study as “irresponsible”, “unrealistic,” “unsubstantial,” and “sensational”. As a consequence of the Minister’s response, the CCRD has initiated preparations for a follow up meeting with government next month beginning with discussions in Bella Coola this week.
The BCVT questionnaire data are being analysed by two professional research firms, and the resulting reports are expected soon.