By Todd Stone
Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure
and Naomi Yamamoto
Minister of State for Tourism and Small Business
There is much discussion about the ferry component of the Discovery Coast Circle Tour and we would like to lay out clearly for the people of British Columbia, especially those living in our coastal communities, how much our government values the tourism industry and the opportunities that lie ahead.
A strong and sustainable tourism sector is important for our province's economy. Tourism operators from Bella Coola, through Anahim Lake to Williams Lake and beyond, are vital contributors, as are other coastal communities between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert.
The decision to change the Discovery Coast ferry service was a tough one. However, government is committed to a second consecutive balanced budget, as well as making the difficult decisions now to help ensure the long-term affordability and sustainability of our coastal ferry service.
Previously the Discovery Coast Circle Tour ferry service that ran was seasonal, with the Queen of Chilliwack operating for thirteen weeks of the year. Utilization has averaged less than 30 percent which translates into roughly 35 vehicles per sailing on a vessel with a vehicle capacity of 115. As a result, the taxpayer subsidy works out to over $2,500 per vehicle.
The route lost $7.35 million in 2012/13, and if you add the replacement cost of a new vessel (the Queen of Chilliwack must be retired within a couple of years), that cumulative loss would increase to a minimum of $14 million per year. This would not make it possible to achieve our long-term vision of an affordable, sustainable and efficient ferry system and it would not keep fares down.
Our government recognizes the importance of ferry service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, and we are committed to working with the tourism industry to ensure the long-term success of the Discovery Coast Circle Tour, as well as the other ferry routes that showcase B.C.'s west coast from Port Hardy, up the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert and over to Haida Gwaii.
Destination British Columbia will enhance its marketing strategy for the province's circle tours to draw visitors to the province's central coast and central interior. BC Ferries also promotes its northern services, including the circle tours, and will continue to do so.
There is no question that the Discovery Coast Circle Tour ferry service is changing, but tourists from all over the world will still be able to enjoy the beauty of coastal B.C. and not only on a seasonal basis but throughout the summer and winter seasons.
With the coming changes, a connection between Port Hardy and Bella Coola is maintained and tourists will still be able to travel between the two communities and enjoy the beauty of coastal B.C. They would take the Inside Passage between Port Hardy and Bella Bella, and then transfer to the M.V. Nimpkish for the trip to Bella Coola.
The total trip time between Port Hardy and Bella Coola will be about 16.5 hours, not the 33 hours some have suggested. 5.5 hours of the journey is on one of BC Ferries' newer vessels, the Northern Expedition or Northern Adventure. BC Ferries will synchronize the schedules so passengers can meet up with the Nimpkish at Bella Bella and continue their journey to Bella Coola with a minimal 1.5-hour lay-over.
We are working with BC Ferries to ensure that there is a user friendly reservation system that allows customers to book well in advance to ensure their travel schedules can be accommodated. This also includes the ability to reserve space for recreational vehicles.
BC Ferries is exploring the possibility of making some refurbishments to the Nimpkish to improve the comfort of passengers including food and refreshments. With these changes in place, we are confident that this will be an experience that tourists will enjoy.
BC Ferries will also continue to work with coastal communities to discuss how they can support special events such as the Heiltsuk Tribal Journeys event this July in Bella Coola.
An invitation has gone out to the tourist organizations to meet with the government in early March to plan for the future of the Discovery Coast Circle Tour. Additionally, the Minister of State for Tourism and Jobs will visit the Cariboo-Chilcotin to meet with the local tourism operators.
Moving forward, our government believes that new opportunities can be created so that the tourism industry and communities will continue to benefit from this and other circle tours, as well as from other ferry routes that open up B.C.'s west coast to the world.