Ferry rivals ready to compete on Victoria-Vancouver route

The Victoria Clipper’s plans for a new passenger ferry service between Victoria and Vancouver might have caught the competition off guard, but it hasn’t weakened the resolve of an Australian firm to run a vessel on the same route.

Brisbane-based Riverside Marine, which is spending $15 million to establish a passenger service on the same route, remains adamant they will be up and running by July.

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“Did this surprise us? Yes, it definitely came out of the blue. However, it’s not one of those things that would cause us to change our plans or rethink our whole decision to come to Victoria and Vancouver,” said Nick Cheong, Riverside’s vice-president of operations for the Victoria-to-Vancouver service.

“Is this a concern to us? No. We have been working over the past few months of 2015 to deliver a quality service between Vancouver and Victoria and that’s something we are still focused on. There’s a lot of work still to be done, but it’s business as usual.”

Clipper caught many off guard Monday when owner Merideth Tall said she had sold a majority stake in the 30-year-old firm to FRS from Germany and that Clipper would expand its operations to include a new harbour-to-harbour service between Victoria and Vancouver this spring.

Clipper, which runs a high-speed passenger-only service between Victoria and Seattle, gave few details about the service or the vessel it would use.

It’s understood the service would run one round-trip per day, taking about three hours, for as many as 400 passengers. Tall said the vessel will be bigger and faster than any they currently own.

She could not be specific about when the sailings would begin, only that it will dock in downtown Vancouver near Canada Place and the usual Clipper space on the Inner Harbour.

Cheong said he couldn’t comment on how the two services would compare, but noted Riverside intends to run more of a high-end travel experience than a point-to-point transportation link. “From our side, we continue to partner with local tourism operators to bring that immersive tourism experience that we talk about,” he said.

There is also a third player in the game with Prince of Whales offering a scenic whale-watching tour that will also take customers from Victoria’s Inner Harbour to Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, though it’s not considered a direct competitor as its service is a six-hour tour including a stop near Butchart Gardens. Prince of Whales announced the service aboard its new 24-metre, 94-passenger vessel dubbed Salish Sea Dream in September.

The more direct competition was welcoming Clipper’s decision on Tuesday.

Harbour Air executive vice-president Randy Wright congratulated Clipper on investing in the service. “We believe adding transportation alternatives for British Columbians and visitors is a huge benefit to the public, the economy and tourism industry,” Wright said.

B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said the new Clipper service is a different type of service than what the ferries offer. “We see this service as complementary to our service. Any enhancements to tourism will be a benefit to the economy of Vancouver Island,” she said.

The consensus is that tourists and locals who want to travel between the Island and mainland are the real winners with another option.

Paul Nursey, chief executive of Tourism Victoria, said a little healthy competition is good for everyone.

“It’s healthy for business, it’s healthy for customers,” he said. “Some big companies have made some strategic investment decisions in our region. We will promote all of them and we will see how it shakes down.

“When there is competition, there is more choice and there’s generally better pricing. It’s simple economics.”

As for whether two or three services can survive operating on the same route, Nursey was more circumspect. “I think it’s about finding a niche,” he said, noting the marketplace has clearly grown over the past two years. “I think a good product, at a reasonable price, with effective marketing will help.”

Provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the addition of Clipper’s service is a good sign for B.C. “It is a clear demonstration of the appeal of the spectacular natural beauty and the strong, vital economy we have here in British Columbia,” he said. “Both Clipper and Riverside Marine are experienced ferry operators, and obviously think there is a great opportunity here.”

Tall said the company is also looking at a possible service between Vancouver and Nanaimo.

Tall said the new Victoria-to-Vancouver service will mean more than doubling the Victoria staff of 22. “This is jobs, this is tourism and this is a really huge investment from Europe.” She didn’t reveal any financial details about the deal.

Global ferry and shipping group FRS has 60 vessels in 12 countries, carrying more than seven million passengers and 1.9 million vehicles.

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