BELLA COOLA — Picture the scene: sitting on a dock looking out at the mountains, eating freshly-caught spot prawns and crab after a day of searching for Grizzly bears.
It’s exactly the kind of picture-perfect scenario that international travellers think of when they plan a trip to British Columbia.
Leonard Ellis, the owner of Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, regularly sets up such experiences for international travellers looking to explore the Bella Coola River watershed, but he has noticed that it can be a struggle to get people to one of the province’s most isolated areas.
Flights can be expensive. Highway 20, which connects Bella Coola to Williams Lake, features a lengthy stretch of unpaved road that can prove to be a challenge to international travellers.
The biggest obstacle, many locals say, is the ferry system. For years, the Queen of Chilliwack ran from Port Hardy to Bella Coola, connecting Vancouver Island to the central coast.
The ferry was part of a “circle route” that allowed visitors to arrive in Vancouver, travel through Vancouver Island, connect through to Bella Coola by ferry and then drive to Williams Lake and back to Vancouver.
The so-called circle route was broken up when the Queen of Chilliwack was decommissioned during recent service cuts. The ferry was eventually sold and is now operating in Fiji.
In its place, BC Ferries operates two ferries — one from Port Hardy to Bella Bella, then another from Bella Bella to Bella Coola.
Ernest Hall of Bella Coola Valley Tourism says breaking up the journey creates an extra hurdle that deters tourists from completing the circle route.
“In 2012, we had six sailings a week. Four of them included Bella Bella, Ocean Falls and Klemtu. It took a a long time and they were very undersubscribed,” he said.
“There was one ferry that came directly from Port Hardy To Bella Coola. It took 11 hours or so. The sailing that arrived here got in around midnight and was very unsubscribed.”
Hall said one of the sailings departed early the morning and arrived in the early evening — perfect for tourists who want to see area’s stunning landscapes during daylight hours. That sailing was 71 per cent full.
“It was tourists, largely international, who were making the circle,” he said.
There’s also the question of capacity. Hall said the Queen of Chilliwack could transport more than 100 cars to and from Bella Coola while the ferry that currently serves the area — the MV Nimpkish — can handle only 16 vehicles.
“The little Nimpkish is a glorified car ferry that is not wheelchair accessible,” Ellis said.
“This little vessel Nimkpish…is the oldest, slowest boat on the entire BC Ferries system and it’s sailing the third-longest route,” Hall added.
Hall is part of a group trying to lobby Transportation Minister Todd Stone to restore the route. In a letter dated April 29, Stone told the Mid-Coast BC Ferry Working Group “we are not considering a reinstatement of Route 40 service, including any direct sailings between Port Hardy and Bella Coola.”
He did say that the Nimpkish will be replaced by a ferry that can transport 40 to 50 vehicles.
“This new vessel will increase the capacity by about four-fold,” Stone said.
But Hall says the new ferry isn’t enough to help tourism in the area grow.
He isn’t the only one with concerns.
A report released in March from aboriginal groups, businesses and communities in the central-coast region concluded that transportation challenges in the area are hurting tourism opportunities at a time when First Nations tourism potential is exploding in other parts of B.C.
Ellis says recent legislation that protects 85 per cent of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest from logging won’t help the area reach its tourism potential if the proper infrastructure isn’t in place.
As he rides through the South Bentinck Arm on his 40-foot boat, Ellis points to a waterfall and a small stretch of land that he says would be perfect for a little cabin that could serve tourists from the U.S., Europe, Asia and elsewhere. The calm waters of the inlet would be perfect for canoeing and kayaking.
But he says it’s hard to plan for the future when the state of ferry service to the area remains in doubt.
The provincial government recently protected the Great Bear Rainforest, referring to it as the B.C.’s gift to the world. But Hall believes that if we really want to share the Great Bear Rainforest with the world, the circle route needs to be unbroken.
“This circle could be the gem in the crown of B.C. tourism,” he says.
– With files from The Canadian Press