Fingers are being crossed that the budget-busting Northern Sea Wolf ferry will be ready to run between Port Hardy and Bella Coola as planned this summer
Fingers are being crossed that the budget-busting Northern Sea Wolf ferry will be ready to run between Port Hardy and Bella Coola as planned this summer, but in the meantime Cariboo and Chilcotin tourism operators say they are losing bookings because there’s no guarantee.
Sailings are supposed to start on June 3. If Northern Sea Wolf, with space for 35 vehicles and 150 passengers and crew, isn’t ready, the 110-foot-long Nimpkish, with capacity for only 16 vehicles, will be used. Reservations are being accepted up to the capacity of Nimpkish; if that capacity is exceeded for a sailing, potential travellers go on a wait-list.
Amy Thacker, chief executive of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, said members have heard that travel agents and tour operators are not booking or promoting their region because of the uncertainty.
“We had some reports of people that had booked accommodation and their tour and their package and then weren’t able to confirm their ferry and were cancelling,” Thacker said.
Northern Sea Wolf, now 19 years old, was purchased in Greece and bought to B.C. in late 2017. The 246-foot-long vessel has been going through an extensive upgrading to meet Transport Canada regulations.
Costs have climbed to $64 million, up 14.9 per cent from the original budget of $55.7 million, says a report on the ferry system, written by Blair Redlin for the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
In 2013, the previous Liberal government announced it was eliminating the ferry route because it lost $7 million annually. It decommissioned the 115-vehicle-capacity Queen of Chilliwack, which had gone through a $15-million refit and was sold.
Tourism operators in the Chilcotin and the Cariboo complained, saying the ferry service is crucial to their survival. The West Chilcotin Tourism Association paid for a study that said operators lost $3.9 million in summer 2014 because the service ended.
The government relented and then-premier Christy Clark announced in 2016 that the route would be restored.
Plans initially called for Northern Sea Wolf to be in service in June 2018, but work took longer than expected. Another ferry was put into service in 2018.
Northern Sea Wolf is also slated to provide service to Bella Bella, Shearwater and Ocean Falls.
B.C. Transportation Minister Claire Trevena slammed the B.C. Liberals for cutting the route and for not keeping Queen of Chilliwack in service. Cutting the service, “hurt everybody from Port Hardy, Bella Bella, up the Bella Coola valley, up to Williams Lake,” Trevena said.
Tourism operators are concerned about what could happen to their businesses if the ferry is delayed, she said. If that happened, “it is going to have a serious impact on tourism in the region.”
Mark Collins, B.C. Ferries president and chief executive, apologized in a mid-February letter to customers, stakeholders and community representatives, for the uncertainty. The corporation’s “confidence is high” that the ferry will be in service on time, he said. “The renovation work finishes in late March and is followed by extensive systems testing in April to ensure everything meets our standards. A safe, comfortable and reliable experience for you is our top priority.”
Because the vessel is new to the fleet and has many new features, there is always some risk of delays coming up during testing, he said.
“Until we are sure all is operating perfectly, we have accepted travel reservations only up to the limit of our backup vessel, the smaller Nimpkish.” This is to avoid disappointing passengers in the “unlikely event” Northern Sea Wolf is delayed, Collins said.
Once testing is finished in April and B.C. Ferries is confident Northern Sea Wolf will go into service on June 3, people on the wait-list will receive a reservation.