For the fourth summer in a row, there will be no direct ferry service connecting Port Hardy and Bella Coola.
BC Ferries has confirmed the Northern Sea Wolf — which was highly anticipated to launch the first week of July — is facing major delays and will not sail until mid-October. If that’s not bad enough, the Nimpkish has been arriving near empty, topping off an increasingly frustrating summer for travelers and local tourism operators.
“We were very upset to hear that the Northern Sea Wolf won’t sail until October,” said Bella Coola Valley Tourism President Tom Hermance. “In addition, the fact that the Nimpkish is arriving near empty on some runs shows that travelers are upset too. This is bad news for our members and is very concerning for the region as a whole.”
BC Ferries Public Affairs Manager Darin Guenette said that the company is doing its best to get the vessel into service as soon as possible but was not able to reach any service dates this summer.
A tentative date has been set for September 20 to begin direct sailings from Port Hardy to Bella Coola on the Northern Adventure – the vessel that services the Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii route. The Northern Sea Wolf is expected to make an appearance in central coast waters sometime after October 15 to take over for the Nimpkish on the mid-coast run – long after the summer season has passed.
“The production schedule for the vessel has experienced some major setbacks that resulted from the extensive renovations on the ship,” said Guenette. “We are all disappointed, but work is proceeding as quickly as possible.”
Guenette compared the reconstruction of the Sea Wolf to a house renovation: one project uncovered another, and another, and so on. This has resulted in severe challenges that have written off any chance of the vessel providing direct service this summer.
Local and regional tourism operators have promoted the route heavily for over a year. The revelation that the vessel will not make the summer season has been huge blow.
“The credibility of the route is now at an all time low,” said Hermance. “It’s going to take some serious effort on the part of BC Ferries to earn the trust of our community again, and, I would argue, earn the trust of their customers as well.”
Initial bookings for the route were high but there has been a slew of cancellations, and now the Nimpkish has been arriving near empty due to complications with travel from Port Hardy to Bella Bella.
“Some people who booked to sail the Northern Sea Wolf were not able to get to Bella Bella to make the transfer to the Nimpkish because the Northern Expedition is full,” explained Guenette. “If there’s room we are accepting all bookings for the Nimpkish, but if the sailings to Bella Bella are full people are forced to cancel.”
Guenette also said that BC Ferries has received a large number of no-shows on the route, for which there were varied explanations from passengers. He said the customer care team is following up with all clients who were booked to sail the Northern Sea Wolf to offer a 2019 trip in lieu of this year, but as many are international clients re-booking isn’t that simple.
“We don’t know exact numbers, but we do a lot of bookings through tour companies, so we do know there are a large proportion of international clients,” explained Guenette. “It is certainly more difficult to reschedule those people.”
Meanwhile, Bella Coola Valley Tourism has been receiving calls from stranded travelers in Bella Bella facing a variety of challenges regarding accommodation and amenities.
“We have received calls from stranded visitors in Bella Bella who are sleeping in their cars, unable to find bathrooms, and more,” said Hermance. “It has been awful for stuck guests.”
With hopes for this tourist season essentially over, attention is being turned to the remainder of the season as well as planning into 2019.
Hermance is hopeful that this summer’s debacle will lead to improvements in 2019; pushing for BC Ferries to market the route more aggressively and start the season earlier.
“Bella Coola Valley Tourism and its partners have already been pushing for an earlier start to 2019 rather than an extension of the 2018 season,” said Hermance. “This latest announcement has us rethinking our marketing strategy for 2019.”
Guenette agreed, saying BC Ferries is committed to ensuring the 2019 season will be the best it can be.
“BC Ferries is listening to the requests from Bella Coola Valley Tourism to start the 2019 season earlier in June and continue into September,” said Guenette. “In addition, our marketing team will be promoting the route strongly and focusing on getting off on the right foot to rebuild customer confidence.”