VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government will restore summer ferry service between Bella Coola and Port Hardy, after it cut a similar route in 2014, restricting access to aboriginal tourism sites and drawing protests from local First Nations.
Premier Christy Clark announced on Tuesday that the province and BC Ferries are looking for a vessel to provide a seasonal service between the two Central Coast communities, with sailings beginning in summer 2018.
"By introducing the right ferry service, using the right vessel, we can take advantage of the increasing numbers of international visitors who come here to experience one of the world's jewels — the Great Bear Rainforest," she said in a statement.
She told reporters at a news conference that the new service would be a "very different" one from the route that was cancelled in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure. She said the ship from the previous route was the wrong size, was often 70 per cent empty and was set to be retired, while two of the sailings each week took 20 hours and only one was direct.
Clark promised the new, more direct service would be "higher-end" and feature a ship that was the right size, but she said the cost of the route was still yet to be negotiated with BC Ferries.
When the route was cut two years ago, the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. and the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C. spoke out against the decision, warning it would dampen efforts to encourage aboriginal tourism.
Keith Henry, now president of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada, criticized the ferry cancellation at the time.
Henry told the premier's news conference on Tuesday that a mid-coast working group, made up of 15 aboriginal and non-aboriginal partners, had collaborated with the B.C. government over the past two years to establish a "new vision" for tourism in the area that included ferry service.
"If we cannot move visitors effectively along mid-coast B.C., tourism becomes extremely difficult to grow," he said.
"It wasn't an easy path," he added. "We certainly had a lot of constructive discussions about the best way forward, but we're here today."
Clark said the government will also invest about $200,000 for a new terminal at the Bella Bella Airport to support tourism growth in the region.
The government's announcements are part of a new economic agreement with the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. Clark said her government will provide up to $2.5 million over three years to support the continued development of the assembly's First Nations Sustainable Economic Development Strategy.
The strategy will include establishing a roundtable of First Nations "economic champions" from all regions of the province to advise leaders, as well as improving employment data for on-reserve communities.
The Business Council of B.C. and the provincial Assembly of First Nations also announced Tuesday that they have signed what they say is a "landmark" memorandum of understanding to ensure sustainable economic development.
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