As a companion piece to his report on the night that the Queen of the North sank, Jack Knox of the Victoria Times Colonist examined the impact the tragedy had on the tourist industry of the North.
Tourism industry resurfacing a year after the sinking
Plenty of troubles, but optimism is returning
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
PRINCE RUPERT — It’s a shades-of-grey Markgraf painting of a day, leaden sky sitting on cloud-shrouded slopes sliding into the gunmetal water of Tuck Inlet.
At the helm of the 12-passenger water taxi, peering through the slapping windshield wipers, Trent Davis is searching for a hint of blue on the horizon. So, for that matter, is everyone else in the tourism business up here.
When the Queen of the North sank to the bottom of Wright Sound last March 22, the ripples spread throughout B.C.’s hospitality industry. The loss of the ferry all but severed the circle route that carried travellers through the Interior of the province, out to the coast, down Vancouver Island and over to the Lower Mainland. Nowhere took the blow harder than Prince Rupert.
Among those feeling the pain was West Coast Launch, the company owned by Davis’s family. In winter they carry kids from Metlakatla to school in Prince Rupert, run coastal pilots out to the grain freighters anchored in the harbour, or, on this day, take an outpost nurse to a remote village. In summer they offer excursions for the tourists who pour off buses and cruise ships, anxious for a glimpse of the wolves, whales and other wilderness delights of the north coast.
Last summer was tough. “Our rubber-tire traffic was probably down by almost 30 per cent,” says Davis, his runt-of-the-litter Jack Russell terrier, Max, curled at his elbow. “We didn’t have the number of passengers that we did before.”
Others in Prince Rupert tell similar tales. The Museum of Northern B.C. saw its numbers fall 20 to 30 per cent, even with an increase of visitors from within the province; curator Susan Marsden says it was the loss of ferry passengers that hurt. Hotels suffered. So did restaurants. All this in a community that was counting on tourism to bridge the city’s transformation from beleaguered resource town to major container-shipping port.
It could have been worse, though. B.C. Ferries gets credit for squeezing as many sailings as it could out of its remaining northern vessel, the Queen of Prince Rupert, and for giving boarding priority to bus tours, even if some did end up having to depart at bizarre hours. “It’s pretty tough to make a guy smile at 3 a.m., but it did work out,” says Scott Farwell, operations manager at the Crest Hotel. “Overall, it turned out to be a better season than we anticipated.”
And now relief is on the horizon. B.C. Ferries’ new ship, the Northern Adventure, is scheduled to go into service at the end of this month. The new vessel’s arrival will mean the undersized, overworked Queen of Prince Rupert, hastily dragged out of refit after last spring’s sinking, will finally get a break.
In normal times, one vessel serves B.C. Ferries’ two main northern routes in winter and early spring, alternating between the Prince Rupert-Port Hardy and Prince Rupert-Queen Charlotte Islands runs. As of mid-May, each of those two routes gets its own ferry. The loss of the Queen of the North, with a capacity of 700 passengers and 115 vehicles, meant the 80-car Queen of Prince Rupert had to do double duty all summer.
B.C. Ferries tried to ease the pressure by barging commercial traffic to the Queen Charlottes and flying some foot passengers, but there was no ignoring the hole left by the Queen of the North. That was reflected in the numbers: From March to September, the passenger count fell to 25,534 on the Inside Passage route, just less than half the total seen in the same period in 2005.
The count dropped to 24,102 from 36,200 on the Queen Charlottes run.
What surprised many was how far-reaching the loss of the ferry was felt. “I don’t think any of us understood how far its influence spread,” says Bruce Wishart, executive director of Tourism Prince Rupert. Businesses in Terrace, Smithers and out to Prince George were hurt. Wishart heard of one hotel chain reporting sinking-related cancellations as far east as Saskatchewan. Tourism across northern B.C. fell by something like 14 per cent.
Northern tourism groups went into survival mode, targeted domestic travellers with the help of $450,000 in one-time marketing money from the province.
They promoted regional events and whipped up a six-week fishing derby — the Great Northern Salmon Classic — to attract visitors from northern B.C. and Alberta in August and September. The $100,000 top prize for the largest coho — an 181/2-pounder — went to a man from Houston, down the road to Prince George. The regional campaign helped some, but didn’t come close to making up for the lost ferry traffic.
“It allowed us to come out alive and come out with the lights on,” says Wishart, who learned of the ferry sinking just an hour after it happened, via a 2 a.m. phone call from a Los Angeles Times reporter who roused him from his sleep.
Other regions fared better. After suffering through a horrible May and poor June, northern Vancouver Island tourist operators were fortunate in that they still had cars rolling off the Queen of Chilliwack, serving the Bella Coola-Port Hardy route.
In fact, that run picked up some of the tourists who would normally have gone through Prince Rupert; the March-September passenger count rose to 11,600 from 9,800 the year before..
North Island tourism groups were also able, thanks to $350,000 from the provincial government, to launch an ad blitz aimed at luring visitors from the Lower Mainland and south Island. “July and August were actually up over the previous year,” said Dave Petryk, CEO of Tourism Vancouver Island. Hotel room revenue jumped 11 per cent in the first month, eight per cent the next.
But while someone from Victoria or Vancouver can hop in the car and be on northern Vancouver Island within a few hours, the same can’t be said of Prince Rupert.
A two-day drive from any big city, it didn’t have the option of enticing spur-of-the-moment travellers.
The real loss was in independent travellers — families in mini-vans, Europeans in rented RVs — who couldn’t find space on the ferry. Giving priority to group travel was important (“Once you lose a bus tour, it might be years before they look at you again,” says Wishart) but both northern B.C. and northern Vancouver Island will have to work hard to lure back rubber-tire travellers.
They’ll also have to get past what was more than just an economic loss. The sinking of the Queen of the North, a familiar constant of life on the coast, left many shaken. “It was psychologically horrible,” says Marsden.
Still, the sinking forced neighboursp to work more closely, to scrap for survival. “We lost a community asset, but we all came through it together,” says Roberta Bowman, managing director of the Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce. Her husband was aboard the Queen of the North when it was holed. He was rescued.
Now, with B.C. Ferries’ new ship ready to arrive, and Prince Rupert looking at a more advantageous cruise ship schedule and the continuation of its container-port project, there may finally be a bit of blue on the horizon.