BC Ferries has busiest summer ever in 2017

The BC Ferries terminal at Swartz Bay has been a busy place with record numbers of vehicles and passengers | Photo: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

Discounted fares and a strong tourism season led to BC Ferries having its busiest summer ever, according to numbers released by the corporation.

In its second quarter financial results that cover the period ending Sept. 30, BC Ferries reported its highest vehicle traffic numbers ever and the highest passenger traffic levels in 20 years. It carried 7.8 million passengers and 2.9 million vehicles in the three months. Passenger and vehicle traffic was up 5.2 per cent in the second quarter compared to the same time last year.

BC Ferries chief executive Mark Collins said traffic numbers are up nearly 10 per cent over the last two years. “We could see the traffic building early this year and we scheduled extra sailings wherever we could,” said Collins. The corporation used discounted fares to get more people travelling in traditionally weak times such as early morning and late night.

There were 460 extra round trips through the summer.

Collins said the increased traffic and the resulting strong financial returns for BC Ferries is down to the strength of the B.C. tourism market. “It’s been a great year for tourism,” he said, noting it benefited from a weak Canadian dollar compared to the U.S., relatively low gas prices in the U.S., great weather and the fact B.C. is seen as a clean, green and safe destination.

“There’s been a whole confluence of factors driving a positive tourism market and locally Vancouver Island is beautiful, green and safe and that attracts people to the coast,” he said.

Hospitality industry consultant Frank Bourree of Chemistry Consulting said BC Ferries is benefiting from a robust economy all-round. “The U.S. dollar is driving things, and we are hitting on all cylinders in this region and BC Ferries is getting the benefit,” he said.

Collins said in addition to BC Ferries’ discounted fares, it also heavily marketed the coast, pulling in new business from international markets.

“We are getting traction on that,” he said. “And we’ve worked hard to fill up the less frequented sailing times.”

The financial result is a healthy bottom line as revenues in the quarter increased by 3.5 per cent, and 3.3 per cent over the last six months compared to the same period last year.

Ferry revenue for the second quarter was up to $225 million from $217 million in the second quarter of 2016, while year-to-date revenue increased to $388 million from $375 million in 2016.

Net earnings increased to $98.4 million from $95.2 million in the quarter, though over the last six months net earnings dropped to $115 million from $122 million.

The drop of $6.5 million over the first six months of last year is down to adding new service on some routes and new vessels to the fleet.

“I’m very pleased with the results, [second quarter] is always our biggest quarter and now we go into loss-making quarters that will offset that a bit,” he said. Traffic numbers will slow and the corporation goes into refit mode and maintenance costs will increase significantly.

He said the positive results would reduce future pressure on fares and will allow for continued investment in new vessels and terminal improvements.

Collins said BC Ferries is always walking a fine line between adding capacity with new ships and maintaining an affordable fare structure.

“We have to be careful. It is possible to overbuild and I know that is a frustration to some of our customers and the communities we serve,” Collins said. Adding new and larger ships may help with demand, but it comes with a cost that would have to be reflected in increased fares, he said. “We compromise with a capacity large enough to serve yet right-sized enough to be cost-effective.”

Paul Nursey, chief executive at Tourism Victoria, said BC Ferries is reaping what it has sown.

“I have also noticed a fresh energy and spirit of collaboration from new BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins,” said Nursey, noting the corporation has been a solid marketing partner. “This is greatly appreciated by the broader tourism industry and bodes well for the future.”

Collins said he sees indications of a strong tourism season ahead.

Times Colonist