Ferry cuts to be felt downstream

Cuts to BC Ferries service to Prince Rupert will have far-reaching consequences for all of northern B.C., said the port city's mayor.

"We've monitored this situation very closely and we're extremely concerned about implications for the northern economy," said Prince Rupert mayor Jack Mussallem, in a press release. "This is not just a coastal issue."

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Mussallem has reached out with the results of a report his city put together studying the potential economic impacts of the cuts to BC Ferries northern routes.

On Feb. 5, transportation minister Todd Stone confirmed there would be $18.9 million in service reductions coming this spring.

This includes a 32 per cent reduction to round trips on the Inside Passage route (Port Hardy-Mid-Coast-Prince Rupert), a 27 per cent reduction in round trips to the route connecting Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert and t.he elimination of Route 40 (mid-coast to Bella Coola). That Discovery Coast Circle Tour connection between Port Hardy and Bella Coola would be replaced by having travellers take the Inside Passage trip to Bella Bella and then transfer to another vessel to continue on to Bella Coola.

Revised schedules are due to be released April 28.

The Prince Rupert report, which has been forwarded to the transportation minister, includes a recommendation calling for a delay of the cuts to 2015 and for a comprehensive economic impact assessment be completed. In a letter sent out to fellow B.C. local government officials, Mussallem encouraged his colleagues to also contact the provincial government to raise concerns.

Northern B.C. Tourism CEO Anthony Everett agreed that it's an issue that affects more than the port communities.

"What we've learned over many years - particularly after the sinking of the Queen of North in 2006 - is our visitors that we are marketing and selling northern B.C. trips to, they take the inside passage ferry and they travel all throughout northern British Columbia into Alberta, into the Yukon," Everett said.

According to the Prince Rupert study, "the visitor economy in northern B.C. is a symbiotic partnership of communities," with more than half of Prince Rupert's leisure travellers spending time in Prince George.

"It is positive that more people are becoming aware of how travellers travel through northern B.C. and that things like this have impacts on businesses as far away as any corner of northern B.C.," said Everett.

"The majority of our summer guests are European tourists who have done the circle tour from Port Hardy, Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, drive or train to Prince George... and then off to Jasper," said a submission to the study from Prince George's Arbor Bend and Breakfast. "The European guests that come to us are in Western Canada to see 'nature.' They are not interested in cities and congested traffic."

According to the report, more than half of the travellers arriving to Prince Rupert by ferry left by road and 38 per cent left on another ferry system. Nearly 80 per cent of VIA Rail passengers to Prince Rupert left by ferry.

"When contacted for this report, VIA Rail confirmed these numbers and indicated that this level of interconnectivity should make their concern with BC Ferries service cuts very clear," the report said.

The main clientele are international visitors and the quickly approaching cuts are already having an effect on the coming tourist season.

Tourism officials work with tour operators up to two years in advance, so changes to transportation itineraries are particularly damaging.

"The short timeline on reductions in service has had implications, and there are businesses in northern British Columbia that are cancelling business that they had already booked in those portions of September and May where the service has been reduced," said Everett, who would support any postponement in the schedule changes to have a chance to work with tour operators. "We're already seeing some of the impacts."

The Prince Rupert study included input from Prince George businesses that said they were already feeling the consequences from less passengers due to rising ferry fares.

"It does not seem to make any sense that BC Ferries is cutting services more and more, reasoning that the routes are not making enough money," said a submission from Bon Voyage Motor Inn, adding "in cutting more services, especially in the north, BC Ferries is 'shoveling their own grave,' since I think they will become even less profitable."

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