Last week the provincial government announced it would be reinstating a seasonal, upgraded ferry run from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island to Bella Coola on the central coast starting in summer 2018; and that means good news for businesses along the Highway 97/Highway 1 corridor, says Pat Corbett, past chair of the Cariboo-Chilcotin-Coast Tourism Association (CCCTA).
“This will represent around 500 to 600 visitors a week going past the door,” he predicts. Whether those taking the ferry trip travel north by road to Williams Lake and go west, or drive up the island and then head east at Bella Coola, they will run right through the Gold Rush Trail corridor at some point.
Amy Thacker, the CEO of CCCTA, says that when the weekly summer run aboard the Queen of Chilliwack was abruptly cancelled in 2014, businesses along the Highway 20 corridor from Bella Coola to Williams Lake saw their seasonal revenues drop by as much as 90 per cent, while businesses along the north-south corridor saw revenue drop by as much as 25 per cent. “I’m very, very excited about this [announcement],” she says. “It’s significant to the entire circle route.”
B.C. is a prime market for European tourists, many of whom rent campers and travel the province for two to three weeks. Corbett adds that there are probably as many, if not more, foreign tourists who come to B.C. and travel independently in rental cars. He also points to bus tour traffic as being a significant factor. “The opportunities in the Ashcroft and Cache Creek area to take advantage of this extra tourism are huge.”
He adds that there have been changes since the service was cancelled in 2014 that point to an increase in tourists interested in taking the circle tour utilizing the new ferry. “It is significant the way this [new service] is being positioned in the marketplace,” he says, noting that the ferry route to Bella Coola runs right through the recently established Great Bear Rainforest. “The Great Bear Rainforest has got more public attention worldwide than almost any other tourism venture in B.C. It seems to have captured the attention of the world in a big, almost Olympic-sized, way. It’s a game changer. There’s a huge interest in it. It’s becoming iconic.”
Corbett says that planned changes to the new ferry route will also help attract tourists. “The Chilliwack made 9.5 knots, and the trip [from Port Hardy to Bella Coola] took 20 hours. BC Ferries will be looking for a ship that does about 14.5 knots, so the entire trip can be made in daylight. A big complaint in the past was the time the trip took. One arrival in Bella Coola was at midnight, and it was hard for people to find a place to stay. It was one reason that it was difficult to sell [the trip].”
He also notes that BC Ferries is looking for a vessel that will provide a more “high end” service, with amenities and trappings that tourists are looking for. “I’m very confident that they will find the right vessel.”
First Nations bands in the Bella Coola area are already investing significant sums in developing or refurbishing sites to cater to the tourists who are expected to flock to the new service. “The Nuxalk band has purchased the Bella Coola Motel and is refurbishing that,” says Corbett, “and they have a $1.5 million restaurant under construction. They’re also building 10 mini-longhouses along the banks of the Bella Coola River, to be used as accommodation. They’re at the post-design stage and getting ready to build.”
He points to the McAbee Fossil Beds near Cache Creek as a prime example of a site that tourists on the circle tour would flock to see. “The same people who want to see the Great Bear Rainforest will want to see McAbee. It’s such a huge, huge opportunity.”
Corbett has high praise for Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett. “She was incredible in what she did behind the scenes to make this happen. She was a real champion for this cause. She got [the working group] to Christy Clark.”
He says that much as people would like to see the new ferry service started in 2017, the extra year will give people time to get the marketing in place and do it properly. “We’re already working with tour operators [for 2018],” he says.
And Corbett has a word of advice for tourism-related businesses and ventures along the Gold Rush Trail corridor: “You should be working on this now. This is massive.”