By Ernest Hall
Special to the Weekend Tribune/Advisor
Co-operation and determination set the tone for a recent meeting in Bella Coola with BC Tourism and Small Business Minister Naomi Yamamoto.
Following more than five months of frustrating effort calling on the B.C. government to reverse its decision to cancel BC Ferries Route 40, which has provided direct summer ferry service between Bella Coola and Port Hardy since 1996, Ms. Yamamoto’s visit was the first by a government minister to the area most drastically affected by last November’s cancellation.
Her visit to Bella Coola, at the invitation of Bella Coola Valley Tourism, followed a similar visit to Williams Lake three weeks before.
A delegation of 10 local individuals representing various sectors of the community met the minister in a lively discussion during which all acknowledged the decision to replace the direct sailings with an indirect, more complicated schedule is firmly in place for the 2014 tourist season.
The delegation strongly criticized the decision to replace the 115-car Queen of Chilliwack with the 16-car Nimpkish, a decision made without an adequate socio-economic study of its effects.
The delegation comprised of John Morton, who facilitated the meeting, Doug Baker (Bella Coola Valley Tourism), Darla Blake (Central Coast Regional District), Ernest Hall (BCVT), Randy Hart (Nuxalk Development Corporation), Fraser Koroluk, (accommodator/tour operator), Chris Nelson (Nuxalk Nation and Aboriginal Tourism liaison), Kathy Nylen (former accommodator and BC Ferries Advisory Committee representative), Markus Schieck (travel agent and BC Ferries agent), and Beat Steiner (accommodator/tour operator).
Under persistent questioning from the group regarding the lack of an impact study prior to the decision, Ms. Yamamoto recognized the value of conducting such a study if it pointed toward future directions and the development of an economic plan for the Central Coast region.
She said her ministry would work with the Central Coast Regional District (CCRD) in helping to identify resources available for conducting such a study and for developing an economic plan for the region.
She indicated she is unaware of an overall plan for the Central Coast. She said much of the concern expressed about the lack of an economic plan should be directed to the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, and she offered to assist in efforts to raise these concerns with that Ministry headed by Prince George MLA Shirley Bond.
Ms. Yamamoto, accompanied by Peter Harrison of Destination BC (formerly BC Tourism), said her department is forming a “working group” at the Director level of her ministry involving representation from the ministries of Tourism and Transportation as well as BC Ferries, Destination BC, and from the tourism industry.
This group is to look at ways the damages caused by the Route 40 cancellation can be mitigated. She said she has had difficulty identifying a BC Ferries representative because BC Ferries wants “a change of tone” in order to engage in the process. (BC Ferries and the government have come under heavy criticism from ferry-dependent communities all along the coast for the decision to slash services and increase fares.)
Meanwhile, at the direction of the Transportation Ministry, Destination BC has provided $100,000 to assist in marketing efforts to promote tourism in the region in view of the confusion and cancellations of tourist bookings caused by the cuts.
These funds are to be administered through Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association (CCCTA), one of six regional bodies in the province. Peter Harrison, partnership marketing director for Destination BC, told the group that this region “is top of mind” in his department.
Members of the delegation questioned whether such funds devoted to marketing would be of any real value following the many cancellations of 2014 tourist bookings in the region stretching from Northern Vancouver Island to the Cariboo. The delegation was adamant in its position that mitigation of damages and compensation for business losses are not the solution to the problem.
As one delegate put it: “We don’t want handouts: We want to be part of the solution”.
Minister Yamamoto welcomed the group’s offer to work cooperatively with her ministry in order to develop strategies to benefit regional tourism and small business. She suggested the possibility of involving private enterprise and First Nations in developing the tourism industry with suitable transportation mechanisms to get tourists into the region.
She also recommended efforts to extend the tourist season beyond the 13 weeks served by Route 40 sailings in the past. In concluding the meeting, delegates assured the Minister of their interest in co-operating, one noting, “we are not going away.”
In further discussions following the meeting, Ms. Yamamoto indicated that funding in addition to that offered for additional tourism marketing might be available for particular mitigation efforts. For example BC Ferries could be prevailed upon to install lighted shelters at the ferry terminals in Bella Bella and Bella Coola.
After the meeting, Ms. Yamamoto and her party car-pooled with local delegates to the wharf and were able to board the MV Nimpkish now in the early stages of being refitted to make the vessel more comfortable for tourists booking travel for the 2014 season.
For instance, softer seating is being installed, and vending machines will provide complimentary beverages and light refreshments for the nine-hour trip to or from Bella Bella. Ms. Yamamoto expressed some concern that the vessel’s upstairs washrooms and lounge are not accessible for wheelchairs and others with difficulty climbing stairs.
On her first visit to the region, Ms. Yamamoto’s party then drove to Anahim Lake for a meeting with Chilcotin tourism industry representatives and returned the following day to Bella Coola. She was particularly impressed by the Hill and hopes to return on a fishing vacation this summer.