So far this summer, 18 guests have cancelled their accommodations at the Old Courthouse Inn, due to problems with BC Ferries.
“It would have been many more, but I talked a lot of them down,” explained Kelly Belanger, who has owned the Inn for 11 years, and says he has never seen a summer like this before — featuring unpredictable ferry overloads and cancellations.
“Most guests just look at the chaos as it’s being reported on the news, and believe they won’t be able to get here, so they call to cancel. I tell them, ‘No, actually, ferries are usually reliable. Get there two hours before your sailing and you’ll probably get on.’
“That said, some guests arrive and tell me it took them 12 hours to get up here [from Vancouver]. They come in tired and frustrated. Some say, ‘I don’t know how you can live up here.’”
This year’s tourism season is busy enough that Kelly’s rooms are easily filled by other travellers. But Kelly is concerned that the qathet region is developing a bad rap as a tourism destination, due to ferry frustration. And, that many of the travellers he sees are not tourists at all; they’re professionals who stay with him while they decide whether they want to move here.
He also noted that he often travels to Vancouver Island for business. Over the past few months, he said, he’s been stuck in Comox when both the 3:30 pm and 7:30 pm sailings are cancelled. When that happens, he has to call in staff to run the Inn in his absence.
Kelly says the good news is, once travellers get here, they usually have such a wonderful time, they’ll forgive the ferries.
“By the second day, they’re usually so happy and filled with love and have experienced so much friendliness from the community. We keep our tourists because the people here are super.”
We must be really friendly, because the ferry frustration is real (see sidebar, right).
And, we better keep our happy faces on, because tourism has become a core part of the post-mill economy here. The industry includes accommodation such as the Old Courthouse Inn, restaurants and pubs, retail, adventures such as scuba diving, kayaking, golf, fishing, and more.
It’s hard to tell exactly how much impact BC Ferries is having on tourism, according to Annie Wise, the executive director of Sunshine Coast Tourism. In part, that’s because so many more people are travelling here for the first time-.
“We count 2019 as our baseline year, and it was the best year ever for hotel room revenues,” she said. “That year, Sunshine Coast accommodations took in about $27 million in revenue. In 2020 that declined, of course, due to COVID. But 2021 saw revenues 44% over 2019’s, and 2022 was up 78%, to $48 million.
“So far, 2023 looks to be down about 3% from last year. But those have been huge, huge increases which can’t go on forever. This is just a little softening.”
Around the world, she said, urban centres have lost tourists since COVID, whereas more rural recreation, mountain, and beach destinations are doing really well.
“I just want to be clear in acknowledging that transportation is a major experience of being a tourist on the coast,” said Annie. “There have been significant challenges: overloads, delays, the reservations system, cancellations. This all happened in years past, and it’s ongoing, if not worse. While the challenges are significant, the extensive media coverage on ferries is just as damaging. It seems like every couple of days there’s a new story about challenges with the ferry. I wonder about the impact this kind of media coverage has on people’s decisions on where to travel.”
Sunshine Coast Tourism has written letters to the BC Ferries Commissioner, of course, and maintains a conversation with BC Ferries about the impact on tourism. The agency also released a blog May 29: “How to Make the Most of Ferry Wait,” advising visitors to use that extra time to “Reconnect with your travel partners,” “Go for a walk,” or, to the point, “Simply relax.”
“I know the expectation is that our organization should be asking BC Ferries for better service rather than telling visitors to manage their expectations. It’s gotta be both. We do advocate to BC Ferries — we’re on the ferry advisory committees for both ends of the Coast. But we can also help the visitors who are on vacation mode, who have extra time in their day, be prepared. It’s a careful balance.”
The test will be, will tourists return in these numbers next year, too? This is an “incredibly competitive time in destination marketing,” Annie explained. COVID is over. The world is opening up again. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise we weren’t able to continue 60% growth year over year,” she said. “That wouldn’t be sustainable anyways.” And, people’s travel decisions are complicated. Ferries are just one thing to be considered, as people plan based on inflation, gas prices, their own cost of living, the availability of travel elsewhere, forest fires and more.
At least one local retailer is making the most of this summer’s ferry debacle: Sam Sansalone, owner of Powell River Outdoors. The fishing and hunting store is about a block away from the Westview Ferry Terminal. From the store, he and his staff can hear ferry overloads and cancellations being announced on the terminal’s loudspeaker.
“We joke in the store that we love BC Ferries,” said Sam. “Yes, the cancellations are disruptive and terrible for travelling sports teams, people going to weddings, medical appointments and more. But those cancellations are very beneficial to businesses near the ferries.”
Once a sailing is cancelled, or travellers have to wait for the next sailing, they often wander up to Marine to grab a coffee, or check out Sam’s store. He chats with them. Sometimes they buy nothing. Sometimes they walk out having spent $300.
“You can create any mood you want,” he said. “When people leave my store, they’re talking and laughing. That’s the shop. You learn so much from your customers, and you’re helping them have a great day. Then, they’re customers for life.”
It says a lot about this region, that the vibe here can make up for a two-sailing wait in the hot sun. But it shouldn’t have to be like this.
Kelly argues that the crewing shortage cancellations, especially, are inexcusable. He was hoping the new CEO, Nicholas Jimenez, who was appointed March 6, would have fixed the human resources problem by now.
When BC Ferries cancellation data is released for July through September, we’ll get a better look at whether the problem is being mended, or getting worse.