For many smaller communities along the Canadian west coast, BC Ferries is their lifeblood, transporting goods and supplies and bringing tourists who provide jobs vital to the survival of these out-of-the-way places. When corporate and government entities make decisions about ferry service that harm these communities, the negative impacts on the people of these communities are very real.
One of these communities is Bella Coola, a predominantly First Nations town along the British Columbia coast that’s noted for its spectacular scenery and wildlife. BC Ferries and BC Transportation Minister Todd Stone have cancelled the popular Route #40 (also known as the Discovery Circle Route), which involved two direct weekly sailings of the 115-car Queen of Chilliwack between Bella Coola and Port Hardy during the summer months. Many tourists traveled this Circle Route from Vancouver or Victoria to the Bella Coola Valley, and then returned through Vancouver Island or the Cariboo Chilcotin.
The Canadian government has replaced this tourist-friendly ferry with a tiny one, the smallest in the fleet. The new ferry is slow, expensive and inconvenient for tourists and area residents alike. This ferry arrives at Bella Coola at midnight when restaurants and other tourism services are closed. Visitors who want to continue on must travel highway 20 and its infamous “hill,” a dirt/gravel road with hairpin turns and a 4,000-foot elevation gain, during the dark of night. They pass through the beautiful Bella Coola Valley, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, and the ranchland of the Chilcotin in the dark, missing all this amazing area has to offer.
Support for Native Tourism?
Ironically, back in March, B.C.’s Transportation Minister Todd Stone insisted that the province is committed to supporting First Nations tourism. However, a few months later, they cancelled the Bella Coola-Port Hardy ferry service. When aboriginal entrepreneurs complained that their plans to promote authentic travel experiences in remote coastal areas were devastated by government cuts to ferry service, Stone reportedly said these tourism operators “must learn to live” with cuts to the coastal ferry service.
The government claims cancelling the Bella Coola-Port Hardy route will save tax payers money. Interestingly, the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. (TIABC) insists, given the provincial taxes the route generates for the province, that the ferry is actually a money-maker.
How big an impact will this ill-informed decision to cut ferry service have on communities like Bella Coola? The TIABC’s report on the issue estimates that an average of 35% of the area’s tourism operators’ visitation and revenues were derived directly from Route 40 passenger spending. They say up to 25% of the tourism operators serving the Circle Route could go out of business entirely without the ferry.
No big deal, you say? Hardly. Past industries such as logging, fishing and even game hunting that sustained Bella Coola and other coastal communities in the past have largely gone away. Tourism is the new economic driver and it’s a good one. Tourism is sustainable and green (or at least greener than many extraction industries). Destination BC and its regional tourism partners have worked hard to develop tourism in Bella Coola and other small coastal communities. The popular Circle Route allowed visitors to travel to Bella Coola and other out-of-the-way places via ferry without backtracking. The water-land route proved popular with tourists, including RVers. The tiny ferry that’s replaced the Queen of Chilliwack ferry can hold only 16 vehicles, including two motorhomes. That’s far fewer than what’s needed.
Impacts Wide Spread
The impact of this ferry decision on Bella Coola and surrounding communities has been immediate and profound. When we recently visited the area, folks involved in the tourism industry—restaurateurs, hotel and resort owners, and guide operators told us their bookings are down significantly. And the impact isn’t just in the Bella Coola Valley. We traveled through the Chilcotin, a vast, sparsely populated plateau popular with fishermen, hunters, and tourists looking for an out-of-the-way beautiful locale.
Many of the operators in the Chilcotin, including resort and guest ranch owners, rely on European visitors who book travel well in advance. The government decision to cancel the Circle Route ferry caused many of them to cancel their trips this season. One guest ranch operator told us he usually has 400 bookings by November. This year, he had only 38. A number of operators have reportedly shut their doors completely.
The impacts of the Bella Coola ferry decision are also being felt up and down the Fraser River Canyon, one of routes people could take to complete the Circle Route. In Barkerville, a historic mining town, tourism operators told us their numbers were down this season, likely due to the ferry cancellation. Other tourism operators along highway 97 suggested that the current conservative government’s ties with big industry and the planned pipeline that would go through pristine land north of Bella Coola might have influenced the Canadian’s government decision to cut off the Bella Coola-Port Hardy route. With fewer visitors to the area, there would be fewer eyes on what’s going on in the area.
Who knows what’s prompted British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and her conservative Liberal Party to cut off the transportation and job opportunities to aboriginal tourism communities? As travelers, we should be incensed. The decision to shut down the Bella Coola Circle Route meant RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I could not travel the Circle Route on our recent journey to the area. Like other travelers, we were forced to end our trip in Bella Coola and miss out on Port Hardy and other parts of Vancouver Island. It’s not only inconvenient for us as travelers, it also means we left the area with unspent tourist dollars that could have meant a great deal to communities along the Circle Route.
What can we as travelers do when governments make poor decisions that impact our ability to freely travel and negatively impact small communities who rely on our tourist dollars? We can speak up and let them know we don’t agree with their anti-tourism decisions. If you think this decision is a bad one, let Premier Christy Clark (email@example.com) or Todd Stone, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, (Minister.Transportation@gov.bc.ca) know. I know I’m going to tell them what I think. I hope you will too.– Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor