BC Ferries has delayed the launch of the direct service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola for the second time affecting over 1,000 bookings and forcing customers and tour operators to either cancel or reschedule their sailings.
The direct service route between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, known as route 28, was originally intended to begin June 19, later delayed to July 20, with the launch of the acquired vessel the Northern Sea Wolf.
In a July 10 press release, BC Ferries announced it is uncertain about the date of completion for the refit work on the Northern Seawolf and will postpone route 28 service until Sept. 16 when another vessel, MV Northern Adventure, is available to be deployed on the route.
The Northern Adventure will provide two round-trip sailings a week from Sept. 16 until the end of the summer season on Oct. 11.
Customers affected by the delay will have to either be rebooked on the indirect service via Bella Bella or reservations will be cancelled and fully refunded. Customers whose bookings are cancelled will also be offered the option to sail after the Sept. 16 start date, or complimentary travel on the route in the 2019 season.
BC Ferries Vice-President Mark Wilson and Manager of Public Affairs Darin Guenette attended both a meeting with Port Hardy council and Port Hardy Chamber of Commerce stakeholders on July 18 to answer questions regarding the delay.
“I do apologize for where the service is,” said Wilson at the stakeholders meeting in the Port Hardy Chamber of Commerce board room. “We lost a lot of credibility and trust. Basically, we couldn’t guarantee with certainty that we would be ready to go by July 20 and it looked like it was going to be the middle of August but we didn’t really know and we cant keep re-adjusting.”
Wilson explained that in 2016 the province announced the service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola would be starting summer of 2018 and to meet that timeline, BC Ferries purchased a used ship which was later named the Northern Seawolf.
“We didn’t acquire the ship until the end of August early September of last year and the ship didn’t get here until the fall and that took about two-and-a-half months out of our project contingency,” said Wilson, adding, “To meet our safety and reliability standards, it needed a high level of work – much more work than we anticipated.”
He said the ship is currently in Victoria being refitted by local contractors.
“As you can imagine we are dealing with many, many tour operators – there was over 1,000 bookings in that period that need to be dealt with so it’s a considerable volume of things to go through and try and recover from,” said Wilson. “We will work over the fall with our marketing teams to try and build up some of the damage that has occurred with the operators, the route, the reputation, and the people that booked to see what we can do.”
Jolie White, Tourism Coordinator for Vancouver Island North, asked what the response has been from the tour operators. “I’m curious if there is going to be any hesitation for next season?”
Guenette responded that “What I’m hearing from them is that they essentially are disappointed because they have big international groups for the large part, and they had two things they wanted to talk about, which were the impacts to all of their planning this year … and secondly to look at next year and let’s hit hard on promotion and get off on the right foot.”
White then asked if a summer schedule for the route next year will be released in the fall?
“For our northern routes – for route 28, for route 10, and route 11 – we are going to lock it down in advance and try and have them so they stay the same for multiple years. We are working very hard on it,” responded Wilson.
“That’s the question,” stated Donna Gault, representing Tourism Port Hardy. “If you are going to do anything right, can you at least get us the schedule? Because we can’t guess what you are doing. We can’t run a business if we have to keep guessing.”
BC Ferries Customer Care team will be contacting affected customers to provide more information and options.
“I don’t want to downplay how important this is, how disappointed, and how angry many people are on this,” said Wilson, adding, “We are here to listen and we are trying to everything we can to recover from the situation.”