Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Perfect storm battering tourism; aid needed now

VICTORIA - The NDP was asking about BC Ferries Monday, but missed the most urgent questions.
BC Ferries wasn't their first choice. The New Democrats were keen to ask about emergency room problems, but neither Health Minister George Abbott or Premier Gordon Campbell showed up in the legislature.
So the opposition turned to the sinking of the Queen of the North. The questions were fine, about fare increases and environmental damage and whether BC Ferries should should keep getting paid a subsidy for the route now that it's not delivering the service. But they missed the big issue.
The sinking of the Queen of the North and the drastically reduced service for this summer are a tourism disaster for Prince Rupert and northern Vancouver Island.
And their impact is going to be felt across the entire province.
In the past that would have mattered less. The tourism industry was strong enough to handle even a serious problem like reduced ferry service on a key route.
That's no longer true. Tourism is getting clobbered by a storm of bad news. Start with the Canadian dollar, which topped 90 cents US this week for the first time since 1978. Three years ago our dollar was worth about 70 cents US.
Good news if you're heading to Seattle. Bad news for B.C. tourism.
An American tourist looking at a weekend in B.C. might plan on spending $400 Canadian. Three years ago that would have cost him less than $300 US. Today the same trip would cost him $375 US. That's the kind of increase that makes people think twice. Then consider gas prices. Three years ago gas was about 70 cents a litre. Now it's $1.12. Add the effects of the rising dollar and a driving holiday in B.C. that would have cost an American tourist $190 for gas three years ago would now be $385. (BC Stats estimates that each one-cent increase in U.S. gas prices results in 6,000 fewer tourists. American gas prices are up 55 cents from a year ago, enough to cost the province 330,000 visitors.)
On top of those problems add confusion about the U.S. government's coming requirement that American travelers have a passport. Only about 30 per cent of Americans have passports, and few are likely to get one for a brief trip to our province.
And now BC Ferries has slashed service from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert. A few years ago we did an RV trip from Prince George to Prince Rupert, and then down on the ferry to Port Hardy and home. It was early fall and the trip was spectacular. Most nights we met tourists from Europe, doing a big loop out of Calgary in rented RVs.
The threat of cancelled sailings is enough to make tourists consider other options. The effects will be felt from Nelson to Nanaimo.
The problem is already with us. Visits from the U.S. - by far our major international tourist market - fell 4.6 per cent last year. The number of U.S. visitors in February was the lowest of any month in 25 years.
Government can't ride to the rescue every time an industry hits hard times. Aid often just delays needed adjustments.
But the tourism faces extraordinary challenges. There is a role for government aid.
To its credit the government has sharply increased tourism funding in recent years, doubling support for Tourism B.C. to $50 million a year and providing one-time grants to the six regional tourism authorities.
A one-time emergency grant now now could help the industry through this year.
Tourism BC and the regional authorities could decide best how to spend the money. But a campaign aimed at assuring tour operators that the Rupert-Hardy trip is still possible would make sense. So would efforts to attract more visitors from within Canada, or encourage Americans to visit before passport rules kick in.
It's a good time for the government to land a hand to a key industry.
Footnote: The NDP questions on BC Ferries focused on whether the supposedly independent corporation would be docked money for failing to provide service on the route. Maybe, maybe not, said Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon. The reality is that penalizing the corporation would just mean higher fares for users.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From what I hear about the fast cats ferries, they were designed to cover the waters up the inside passage. No politician told me that, it was folks who build ships. But Gordo would rather join the NDP, or join a commune, than admit they could be brought into use at least for the summer season. Trip times would be shorter and might in tyhe end save money. Will it happen? Not without a lot more heat from the taxpayers. And lets' not forget the company almost got away with the extra 7 million claiming Act of God for the sinking. No insurance company would buy that thought, but until it was raised in the legislature, it was a done deal no matter how much the Transport Minister said it wasn't.

A good opposition can save us money