Midway through the 2014 tourist season, tourism businesses along Highway 20 from end to end are hurting, according to a recent survey conducted by Bella Coola Valley Tourism. And the future for the industry may be even bleaker.
In a telephone survey of businesses stretching from the Bella Coola townsite to Riske Creek, nearly all reported business is down this summer — with estimates ranging from 10 to more than 90 per cent. Those suffering most are businesses offering tours in addition to accommodations.
Especially suffering are those most dependent on advance bookings by international agencies wishing to book travellers on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour — a world-class adventure scuttled this season in cost-cutting measures recommended by BC Ferries and adopted by the BC government.
This move involved replacing the MV Queen of Chilliwack with the much smaller MV Nimpkish that connects with the Port Hardy-Prince Rupert ferry at Bella Bella.
When asked if business was better or worse compared to business in 2013, only three reported business to be about the same, noting that their businesses were not highly dependent on the ferry service.
One accommodator/tour operator reported an increase of 10 per cent in business which was attributed to an advertising campaign and special offers for fly-in guests. Businesses hardest hit are those who have promoted largely through European agencies who used to schedule the Circle Tour as part of a three-week $15,000 “trip of a lifetime” to British Columbia — the type of booking that is done many months in advance.
This season, tourists and agents were unable to book on the Circle Tour until late April, which was too late for most international travellers. Consequently, European agents scratched the Circle Tour from their packages, and those travellers found elsewhere to go. Respondents to the BCVT survey indicated that much of the 2014 tourist traffic involves Canadian travellers.
Most of the businesses surveyed indicated that much of their operation — in some cases, 90 per cent — has depended on the summer ferry service. Three of these, seasonal operators in the Chilcotin, said 65 to 98 per cent of their business depended on ferry travellers, and the cancellation of Route No. 40 accounted for business losses of 40 to 90 per cent.
One Chilcotin business has nights booked for 13 couples between now and mid-September. In 2013, this number was 130. After 21 years in business, this operator says the upside is that his wife can swim in the lake every day and they are planning an August vacation. They are considering closing down the operation entirely.
One Bella Coola tour operator whose business is 75 per cent dependent on ferry traffic said business is down 75 per cent at this point while another reported losses of 60 to 80 per cent. A third, who offers both accommodation and tours, said his business, which is 70 per cent ferry-dependent, is down a whopping 90 per cent over last year.
The 2014 version of the Circle Tour is losing not only its international travellers. For instance, one seasonal operator who has catered to three tour buses each bringing 30 to 40 Canadian seniors on the Circle Tour for 14 summers has just done so for the last time. These tours, west from Williams Lake, involved stopping for lunch in the Chilcotin, overnighting at Nimpo Lake, going for a flight-seeing tour of the glaciers to the south, overnighting in Bella Coola, and heading out the channel and across Queen Charlotte Sound to Vancouver Island.
Although sailings on the Nimpkish are often full (at times to the point of overcrowding — raising concerns about safety), there are still plenty of rooms in the Valley and across the Chilcotin for additional ferry travellers. In fact, a recent BCVT inventory of Valley accommodations indicates ample space for the numbers travelling on the much larger Queen of Chilliwack in years gone by.