B.C.'s Transportation Minister insisted Tuesday that the province remains committed to supporting First Nations tourism, even though aboriginal entrepreneurs say their plans to promote authentic travel experiences in remote coastal areas have been swamped by government cuts to ferry service.
Todd Stone said the government isn't about to change course, and aboriginal tourism operators must learn to live with the coming cuts to the coastal ferry service.
"We're committed to our ferry plan, including the service reduction," the Transportation Minister said. "We're moving forward with the changes we've proposed."
BC Ferries is expected to make $54-million in cuts through efficiencies by 2016. Service reductions due next month are estimated to save $18.9-million over two years, while fares are set to increase four per cent this year and 3.9 per cent in 2015.
Mr. Stone said the government is a strong supporter of aboriginal tourism, but the ferry cuts are required to keep the service affordable and sustainable. The government's decision to cancel a summer-only service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola was made after considering that taxpayers subsidize each vehicle on the vessel at $2,500, he said.
"What we're trying to balance here is the taxpayers of British Columbia cannot afford a subsidy of $2,500 per vehicle," said Mr. Stone. "That's a huge amount."
But the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C. and a tourism development organization affiliated with the Nuxalk Nation at Bella Coola say elimination of the Port Hardy-Bella Coola ferry, also known as Route 40, punches a major leak in their business plans. The ferry carried 115 vehicles.
Aboriginal Tourism Association spokesman Keith Henry said his organization has invested $1.5-million developing coastal tourism programs over the past two years, but the cuts have prompted the group to gear down its efforts.
Nuxalk Development Corp. spokesman Randy Hart said the Nuxalk started a for-profit company in Bella Coola to target tourism, but with the summer ferry service cancelled, plans are now under way to attract fly-in only tourists for exclusive wilderness tours and expeditions.
Mr. Henry noted Route 40, or the Discovery Coast route, was part of a central-coast travel package sold by BC Ferries that made stops at the traditional communities of Bella Bella, Klemtu, Ocean Falls and Bella Coola. Travellers get off at Bella Coola and take a land journey through the Cariboo-Chilcotin to the Lower Mainland.
Mr. Henry said the route changes would represent a significant downgrade to that experience.
BC Ferries said it will continue to sail the Northern Expedition from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, with a stop at Bella Bella. At Bella Bella, tourists and locals would have to board the MV Nimpkish, which is currently undergoing a refit to install seats, interior heat and potable water, for the voyage up the fjord to Bella Coola.
Mr. Stone rejected concerns by aboriginals and opposition politicians that the 16-vehicle MV Nimpkish does not cater to tourists who will want a first-class view and service.
"We don't believe that the Nimpkish is a barge," he said. "In fact, BC Ferries is committed to improving the amenities on the Nimpkish so that it's comfortable for those who ride it."
Opposition New Democratic aboriginal relations critic Doug Donaldson said the government is cutting tourism jobs in aboriginal communities with its route and service cuts.
"For a government that says it cares about jobs, it's a pretty weird way to be behaving around existing jobs in aboriginal tourism," he said.
Mr. Stone said the government has acknowledged the cuts would have an impact.