VICTORIA - Aboriginal entrepreneurs looking to develop home-grown tourism ventures along British Columbia's coast say their plans have been set adrift by Liberal government route cuts at BC Ferries.
The government's decision to sink the money-losing summer run between Port Hardy on Vancouver Island and Bella Coola on the Central Coast has prompted one First Nation and a major tourism agency to re-evalutate their tourism strategies.
After investing $1.5 million over the past two years, the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C. says the impending cuts to ferry service forced it to gear down campaigns to train coastal First Nations to embrace tourism opportunities.
What's the point going full-speed-ahead on tourism when the government has left operators and residents with the 16-vehicle, barge-like MV Nimpkish, to provide a milk-run service for the nine-hour voyage from Bella Bella to Bella Coola, says Keith Henry, the association's chief executive officer.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone says the government and B.C. taxpayers can't keep bailing out BC Ferries, which is why service and route cuts are coming next month in an effort to hold down fare increases and keep the service sustainable.
Henry said the decision to eliminate Route 40, or the Discovery Coast route, this year downgrades the Central Coast's circle tour travel package that included a 115-vehicle vessel with full services that made stops at the traditional communities of Bella Bella, Klemtu, Ocean Falls and Bella Coola, where travellers would get off to take a land journey through the Cariboo-Chilcotin to the Lower Mainland.
BC Ferries will continue to sail the Northern Expedition from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, with a stop at Bella Bella. But at Bella Bella tourists and locals would have to board the MV Nimpkish, currently undergoing a refit to install seats, interior heat and potable water, for the voyage up the fjord to Bella Coola.
"Organizations like ours, we're doing a lot to try and bring more people through," Henry said in an interview. "That's critical to our success. But if we can't get visitors there efficiently, that's unfortunate.
"I can tell you confidently, we've started to minimize our investments around training and product development."
The association sent Premier Christy Clark a letter last December outlining its concerns about the impending cuts.
"The proposed BC Ferries reductions will have an immediate and significant negative financial impact to aboriginal market-ready businesses and product development work currently in the regions of Vancouver Island, Vancouver coast and mountains, Cariboo Chilcotin coast and northern British Columbia," stated the letter.
It stated the tourism association initiated travel plans for almost 140 communities along the Central Coast, Vancouver Island, Cariboo-Chilcotin and northwest B.C., but the cuts will be felt region wide.
Henry said the numbers of travellers wanting an aboriginal tourism experience in B.C. are increasing every year, and he believes it's tied to the authenticity being offered travellers. Aboriginal tourism in B.C. earned $45 million last year, up from $20 million in 2012.
The Tourism Industry Association of B.C. also publicly expressed concern about the impact of the ferry service and route cuts.
"The timing of this announcement couldn’t have been worse," said Ian Robertson, association executive director in a statement last month. "Tourism operators in these regions have been receiving bookings for the 2014 season for months, and now they will have to be cancelled. This decision means that they will definitely lose revenue and jobs — and many may lose their businesses."
Stone was not available to comment, but his ministry provided a statement saying it is aware cuts will hurt but the government's goal is to run an affordable, efficient, sustainable ferry system .
"We have heard from business communities, First Nations and the public in general during our consultations over the last two years," said the statement. "These are tough decisions to make. We recognize that any reduction in service will impact ferry users."
Earlier, Stone said Route 40 was underutilized and expensive, with the losses adding up to a $2,500 subsidy for each passenger.
Premier Christy Clark has said her government will do what it can to support and include aboriginals in economic development.
"I intend to make sure that economic development finds its way into First Nations communities," she said.
BC Ferries is expected to make $54 million in cuts through efficiencies by 2016 and the service reductions 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.
Last month, Stone released the results of a public consultation report that confirmed the Liberals would proceed with cuts despite public opposition and calls for an analysis of the impact cuts on local economies.
"I don't know what goes on in the legislature, but it strikes me they are looking at it from one viewpoint only," said Randy Hart, president and chief executive officer of the Nuxalk Development Corporation at Bella Coola.
"We felt pretty confident that we would be able to improve the ridership on that ferry," he said.
Hart said the Nuxalk Nation started its for-profit company in Bella Coola to target tourism, but with the summer ferry service cancelled, plans are now underway to attract fly-in only tourists for exclusive wilderness tours and expeditions.
"We see tourism as an employment generator and as a way to participate in the non-extractive resource industry," he said. "Personally, I never thought they would go as far as they did. I thought there would be a compromise."
University of B.C. economic geography Prof. Ken Denike said cutting the ferry service to the Central Coast will prove disastrous because it cuts off business networks and prevents new ones from emerging.
The Vancouver school trustee said the replacement of the summer ferry with the MV Nimpkish will sink tourism in the area.
"Putting a boat like a barge on there, which is what they are proposing to do, is ridiculous," he said. "It's going to give the tourists a real ride, but they won't be back."