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Ferry service cuts costing B.C. tourism nearly $4-million in revenue: study

A B.C. Ferries vessel arrives near Skidegate on Haida Gwaii in October 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's mid-Coast region has been hit hard by government ferry service cuts that threaten to turn the community of Bella Coola into a dead-end town, says the operator of an eco-friendly lodge in the remote Bella Coola Valley.

Tweedsmuir Park Lodge owner Beat Steiner said Monday the impact of the service cuts was almost immediate this past summer, with passenger traffic down by about 50 per cent this year and some local businesses reporting losses of up to 90 per cent.

The Transportation Ministry announced last November that route service changes to the Port Hardy to Bella Coola service included decommissioning the 115-vehicle capacity MV Queen of Chilliwack, which provided a direct weekly round trip and was a favourite of tourists.

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A service continued to the area last summer, but with the less furnished 16-vehicle MV Nimpkish and the large, open ocean MV Northern Expedition to create a connector route between Bella Coola and Port Hardy. The trip from Bella Coola to Bella Bella on board the Nimpkish has been criticized as a bare bones, milk-run service.

Steiner said the route and service changes reduced visits on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour, which largely involved tourists, taking the Port Hardy to Bella Coola ferry, where they disembark and travel by vehicle across the central Interior to the Lower Mainland or the Rockies.

"We need a ferry service into Bella Coola, otherwise it is essentially a dead-end community," said Steiner at a news conference attended by Opposition New Democrat Leader John Horgan. "There's such a loss of potential that it's staggering. On that route from Port Hardy, you are seeing whales and dolphins. Bella Coola is a stunning valley. It's one of the jewels of B.C."

The West Chilcotin Tourism Association, of which Steiner is a member, commissioned an impact study that concluded tourism revenue has dropped by $3.9 million since the service cuts and has cost governments almost $1 million in lost tax revenues.

Among the key findings of the Larose Research and Strategy report are: a decline of 46 per cent in same-day ridership between Port Hardy and Bella Coola from 4,995 passengers to 2,696 passengers; an estimated loss of 37 tourism jobs this year and the direct taxation loss to governments of $870,000.

"It's a massive lost opportunity for tourism," Steiner said.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said he is prepared to review the study, but the government made the cuts because the Port Hardy to Bella Coola run was a money-loser at about $7 million annually. He said the route reductions are part of the commitment by the government and BC Ferries to keep ferry fares as low as possible.

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Stone said the Route 40 from Port Hardy to Bella Coola was being subsidized by $2,500 per vehicle and the replacement cost for the aging ferry was estimated at $100 million.

"This report neglects to make any mention of a $100 million requirement to replace the Queen of Chilliwack," Stone said. "At a time when we are hearing from communities across coastal B.C. that fares are continuing to rise. These are the kinds of tough decisions government needs to make."

Horgan called on Stone to review the decision to alter the routes and cut services to the central Coast.

"It's been 12 months since the minister of transportation, without any consultation and without any assessment of the consequences of his actions, reduced services on the coast and eliminating Route 40 and downgrading the service for the discovery route," said Horgan. "This has had a profound impact."

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