Fearing for the future of their businesses, tourism operators on the Central Coast and in the Chilcotin region are urging the B.C. government to keep the ferry service running between Vancouver Island and Bella Coola.
"Without that service … within a few years, half the tourism businesses in this region will be gone," Petrus Rykes, director of the West Chilcotin Tourism Association said in an interview Tuesday. "Without that service, we are basically a dead-end road."
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said he has heard the pleas, but he held out little hope of a reprieve saying the service, which runs in the summer months only, has been losing about $750,000 a year – and if the route is maintained, the aging Queen of Chilliwack will soon have to be replaced at a cost of about $100-million.
"It's extraordinarily difficult to imagine a business case where it makes sense," he said, adding a final decision won't be made until the end of a public engagement process that's now under way.
BC Ferries is proposing service reductions on 16 routes as part of a wide cost-cutting effort. But the only route that will be killed outright is the run between Port Hardy, on the north end of Vancouver Island, and Bella Coola, where Highway 20 terminates after crossing the Chilcotin Plateau from Williams Lake.
"It was the toughest decision I've had to make in my professional career," Mr. Stone said of the plan to abandon the Discovery Coast service, which is known as one of the most dramatic ferry cruises on the West Coast.
Mr. Rykes said although the route has been losing money for BC Ferries, it could be profitable if stops at numerous small ports, including Shearwater and Ocean Falls were eliminated, and instead a twice weekly direct sailing was offered between Port Hardy and Bella Coola.
Mr. Rykes, who runs Eagle's Nest Lodge on the shores of Anahim Lake, said almost all the tourists he sees in a year use the ferry as part of a circle trip that includes Vancouver Island, Vancouver, Williams Lake and Bella Coola.
He said tourism in the region is worth $6-million to $10-million annually, but without the circle option that business could collapse.
"The proposed discontinuation of this ferry service would be nothing short of an economic disaster for the people of the Cairboo Chilcotin Coast region," Mr. Rykes states in a letter to Premier Christy Clark. "It would cause numerous business closures, create widespread unemployment, decimate the tourism industry along Highway 20, lead to many bankruptcies and a collapse in property values, and cause severe economic hardship for many families."
Ingrid Jarrett, President of the B.C. Hotel Association, said BC Ferries northern coastal routes are "world renowned tours" that should be maintained. And she said no changes should be made until 2015 because tours are already being booked for next year.
Beat Steiner, who runs Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, near Bella Coola, states in a letter to Ms. Clark that he was in Europe at trade conferences promoting luxury wilderness travel when he learned of the ferry cuts.
"I did not know what to say to the people I was meeting," he wrote. "How could I be promoting international arrivals to Bella Coola when simultaneously the future of tourism in Bella Coola was being gutted?"
He said the government should keep the ferry service and do a better job of promoting it as a tourism attraction.
"To cancel the route now without a proper try at making it work is unconscionable," he wrote.
Mr. Steiner said the population in the Bella Coola Valley has been dropping because of declines in forestry and fishing. And he fears more will soon go.
"With the loss of ferry service, the related tourism revenue, and now hope for the future, many people will be forced to leave," he said.