Gulf Islands water taxi to launch in September, aims to include Sidney stop

A new water taxi service, designed to extend the tourism season on the Gulf Islands, is still a month away from launch, but the AquaLink is already in expansion mode as it intends to include a stop in Sidney this September.

Debbie Louise, general manager of Gulf Islands Water Taxi, the company behind the service, said she will be meeting with the Capital Regional District this week to talk terms on including Sidney in the mix.

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Louise said demand dictates they expand the service. They intend to provide service twice a day on weekends on a scheduled route starting on Salt Spring Island each morning with stops on Galiano, Mayne, Pender and Saturna before turning around and retracing its steps.

Louise said they had originally planned to use a 10-passenger vessel for the route among the Gulf Islands, but within days of the AquaLink website launching it had been booked up completely.

The company will now use its 45-passenger vessel Scholarship for the Gulf Islands route, and add another 45-passenger vessel, the Graduate, to bring a stop in Sidney into the mix.

“I’m thrilled, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s time,” said Louise, noting she has been working on establishing a year-round taxi service between the Gulf Islands and Sidney since she stepped into her role 23 years ago.

She said it has taken this long to get to the point they can launch the pilot project in September because the service needed improved infrastructure on the islands and a financial subsidy to cover fuel and labour costs.

“It needs to be subsidized because we don’t want to charge a lot for this,” she said, noting the highest fares on AquaLink are $20. “That’s nowhere near what it costs to run the boat.”

AquaLink’s pilot project is being funded by the Southern Gulf Islands Tourism Partnership, which is funded in part by the CRD.

“We’ve been pushing to get someone to back this and finally the penny has dropped,” she said, adding the islands have also added attractions, on-island transport options and things for people to do when they get there and that has tipped the scales.

“Now that all exists. Transportation, tourism and that combination is what will make it work,” she said. “People want to do this. My dream is it will be all year-round every day starting next spring.”

Louise said details have yet to be worked out on how Sidney will be brought into the service, but she is adamant she will not leave her meeting with the CRD this week without some kind of agreement.

“I want people to see how this will work and fall in love with it,” she said.

They were clearly already in love with the idea of touring around the Gulf Islands.

AquaLink’s Chris Hall said there have been studies done that suggest there’s plenty of demand for such a service, and their early bookings confirm that.

“There’s been good early response,” he said.

Hall said this service is not about filling up beds or driving traffic to markets on the islands in the summer, when they are already overwhelmed with tourists and the islands are dealing with water shortages, but rather to establish tourism as a more sustainable industry in the Gulf Islands.

At this point many resorts and attractions are open only during tourism season as that’s when they can count on transient tourist workers and a steady stream of clients.

“It’s hard to run year-round when you lose your staff (after tourist season),” he said. “The goal is to build shoulder seasons and make tourism more sustainable year-round.”

Hill said one of the key features will be the taxi will stop at each island’s busier locations or hubs – Ganges on Salt Spring, Montague Harbour on Galiano, Miners Bay on Mayne, Port Browning on Pender and Lyall Harbour on Saturna – so passengers will have easy access to each island’s main amenities and attractions as well as bike and scooter rentals – the idea is to draw in more people and fewer vehicles.

Hill said he expects a lot of locals may use the service as well since getting to other Gulf Islands without use of a speedboat and relying on B.C. Ferries can be time consuming and convoluted.

The service will begin on Labour Day weekend, which will let them see what tourist use will be like, and then run each weekend through September.

“We’ll see what the demand is and maybe we will get more funding and be able to make this a permanent fixture.”

The cost of passage ranges between $10 for short hops to $20 for the longest routes (AquaLink.ca).

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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