In a reversal, Premier Christy Clark announced plans Tuesday to restore direct ferry service from Port Hardy to Bella Coola by the summer of 2018.
The B.C. government scrapped the seasonal route two years ago, prompting widespread criticism from tourism officials on northern Vancouver Island and in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.
The West Chilcotin Tourism Association later commissioned a study showing that the closing led to a drastic decline in visitors and a loss of $3.9 million in gross tourism revenue in 2014.
Clark said the “new” service will support aboriginal tourism and the mid-coast economy by improving access to the Great Bear Rainforest.
“We want to have it up and running for the 2018 summer tourism season so that all the aboriginal and non-aboriginal businesses on the coast get out there and start selling your tickets,” she said.
Claire Trevena, the B.C. NDP’s spokeswoman on ferries, said the reversal was a clear admission by Clark that the provincial government should never have closed the route in the first place. “It’s a complete U-turn,” she said.
Trevena said Clark is manoeuvring in advance of the 2017 election to shore up government support in the Cariboo-Chilcotin riding held by Liberal MLA Donna Barnett.
“It’s electioneering,” she said. “This is a route that links directly into the Cariboo around Williams Lake and they were hurting around there.”
Tourism operators have hammered the government for shutting the service, which was previously known as Route 40.
They considered it a key leg in the Discovery Coast Circle Tour that visitors follow from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, Port Hardy, Bella Coola, through the Cariboo-Chilcotin and back to Vancouver.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone said at the time that Route 40 lost $7 million in 2013 despite operating for only 13 weeks. It was replaced with a two-vessel journey from Port Hardy to Bella Bella to Bella Coola. The second leg featured a nine-hour trip on the MV Nimpkish, a 16-vehicle ferry that travellers and tourist operators ridiculed for its size and lack of amenities.
Bill Van Es, owner of the Escott Bay Resort in Anahim Lake, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the government’s decision to restore the direct route.
The vice-president of the West Chilcotin Tourism Association said his business dropped 15 to 20 per cent after the service ended and was replaced with the Nimpkish “car barge.”
“I mean, we’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “We’re still talking two years away. … But it is positive news that it is going to be [back in] 2018.”
Walt Judas, chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., credited a coalition of First Nations and tourism groups with pressing the provincial government to reconsider.
“People are ecstatic,” he said. “I think there was such great disappointment when this went sideways a couple of years ago and people felt the pain. Now, to have … what happened today with a new ferry and the reinstatement of the service in the future, I think there is great anticipation.”
Clark said a search is underway to find a ferry for the route. “It could be new, it could be refurbished,” she said. “I don’t have the answer to that.”
The Queen of Chilliwack, which used to make the run, was sold in 2015. Clark said it was the “wrong size” and that its replacement will offer a “very different service” — including the amenities that foreign visitors expect.
“These are people who want a high-end service and we intend to make sure we deliver that.”