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A Kermode bear, better know as the Spirit Bear is seen fishing in the Riordan River on Gribbell Island in the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. Wednesday, Sept, 18, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Kermode bear, better know as the Spirit Bear is seen fishing in the Riordan River on Gribbell Island in the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. Wednesday, Sept, 18, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ferry service on B.C.’s Central Coast missing link in potential tourism gem Add to ...

Highway 20, which runs across central British Columbia from Williams Lake to Bella Coola, is one of the province’s most beautiful drives.

The big problem with it, from a tourism perspective, is that it’s effectively a dead end. Since the provincial government halted the summer-only, direct ferry service from Bella Coola to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, anyone who drives into the small community on the Central Coast has to drive back out – or face a gruelling 16-hour ferry trip that involves a boat transfer at Bella Bella. The first leg of that BC Ferries journey is on the Nimpkish, a small vessel that has room for only 16 cars. Miss it because it’s full and you have to wait up to six days until the next sailing.

Not surprisingly, Central Coast tourism has suffered since BC Ferries cut back on its direct service to Port Hardy in 2014, in the process breaking a key link in what was known as the great circle tour. That route allowed tourists to drive from Vancouver to Bella Coola, returning via Vancouver Island.

On the Highway 20 section of that drive, you drop down into the dramatic rift cut by the Fraser River, just west of Williams Lake, and then cross the thickly forested interior plateau, passing through the small towns of Riske Creek, Chilanko Forks and Kleena Kleene.

By the time you reach Anahim Lake, the rugged Coast Mountains are looming ahead in Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park and then the highway drops with dizzying speed into the Bella Coola Valley.

This is the only road that takes you into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

You can spend two or three days driving from Williams Lake to Bella Coola, stopping along the way in rustic lodges or lakeside log cabins.

In the Bella Coola Valley you can go bear watching, or salmon fishing, or hiking along wild pathways, including the Grease Trail, which has been in use for thousands of years.

The area’s first tourist, explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie, used that well-trodden trail on his epic trip to the West Coast in 1793.

There are also the remarkable petroglyphs just outside Bella Coola that have to rank as one of the world’s great archeological sites. And you can jump off here, or from Bella Bella, for boat tours into the Great Bear Rainforest.

Not surprisingly, in a recent report to the provincial government, Aboriginal Tourism B.C. identified the Central Coast as having “immense growth potential” for adventure tourism.

The report cited as attractions the area’s stunningly beautiful geography, its rich rainforests and the populations of grizzly and Kermode, or spirit, bears, which have white fur.

“The region also boasts a rich cultural heritage that many First Nations communities wish to revitalize and share,” it states. “However, growth in the Central Coast aboriginal tourism sector has lagged behind other regions of B.C., likely due to transportation access challenges.”

The report notes that while aboriginal tourism in B.C. overall increased by about 100 per cent in the past five years, on the Central Coast, the growth was only 15 per cent to 20 per cent.

The report said a study has estimated that 11,000 to 18,000 visitor trips annually could be stimulated to the region “through a combination of produce development, marketing, and enhanced access.”

By enhanced access, they mean better ferry service.

“For isolated coastal regions such as the Coast-Chilcotin and North [Vancouver] Island, ferry services play the single most important role in facilitating development of the visitor economy,” the report concludes.

When the B.C. government cut the direct Port Hardy-Bella Coola service, tourism operators complained that it would hurt their businesses by breaking the great circle tour. And within a summer, they were proven right, as tour buses and recreational vehicle traffic began to dwindle.

The report by Aboriginal Tourism B.C., delivered to the provincial government last week, is an attempt to convince Premier Christy Clark that the Central Coast can be about more than just a place to build LNG facilities.

Bella Coola and Bella Bella sit in landscapes of stunning beauty. The First Nations there want to embrace tourism; they want to show off their rich culture. The Heiltsuk dancers are among the best in the world and Nuxalk cultural guides can take visitors to a petroglyph site, where the ancient faces carved in stone will take your breath away. There are grizzly bears and Kermode bears in the surrounding forests that native guides will gladly take you to see.

Aboriginal Tourism B.C. is asking the provincial government to help them stimulate business by promoting the region – and most importantly, by restoring the direct ferry service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola by next summer.

They have got something wild to sell on the Central Coast. They just need a way to keep the traffic moving.

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