11/17/2014 09:07 EST | Updated 01/17/2015 05:59 EST

BC Ferries cuts killing business, say Coast-Chilcotin tourism companies

The latest battle over cuts to BC Ferries services has some tourism operators on the attack and the government defending its attempts to reign in the cost of ferry service.

The West Chilcotin Tourism Association says business is way down and it's blaming the drop on cutbacks in ferry service.

It issued a report claiming there has been am estimated 46 per cent decline in the number of passengers taking the ferry to connect between Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island, and Bella Coola, on the Central Coast.

The group's president says tourism businesses depended on traffic along a circle route known as the Discovery Coast Circle Tour, where travellers could drive up Vancouver Island then take a ferry to the Central Coast and drive back down to the Lower Mainland area, boosting tourism all along the way.

The association says fewer visitors are completing the link between Bella Bella, where the larger ferry from Port Hardy still stops, and Bella Coola, which is now serviced by the smaller 16-vehicle barge-like vessel MV Nimpkish—and not always with a same-day connection.

The association said that over 17 per cent of the tourism businesses that were surveyed for the report indicated that they were likely or possibly going to be forced to foreclose due to the reduced ferry service in the region.

But B.C.'s transportation minister Todd Stone says the circle tour option for tourists is still very much intact

Costly car carrier

On Monday, Stone said service was reduced because the route had a utilization rate of only 25 to 30 per cent, which meant BC Ferries was subsidizing each vehicle on the ferry to the tune of $2,500, adding up to a loss of $7 million per year.

In addition, BC Ferries was looking at having to spend an additional $100 million to replace the aging ferry that had been servicing the route.

"We don't believe it makes a lot of sense when we're trying to drive down the cost of fares across the system broadly to invest 100 million dollars in a new vessel on this particular route," Stone said.

Stone said the government is working with tourism operators in the area on a number of initiatives to increase business.

- On mobile?Click here for a Google map of Bella Coola, where the ferry from Vancouver Island links to the highway circle tour