Ferry traffic down as tourists go south

Tourists are lining up at U.S. border crossings instead of heading to B.C.'s favourite coastal getaways, and summer traffic on BC Ferries is down about four per cent as a result.

BC Ferries passengers enjoy view of Mount Baker and a glimpse of a pod of orcas in on their way to Vancouver Island.

Tourists are lining up at U.S. border crossings instead of heading to B.C.’s favourite coastal getaways, and summer traffic on BC Ferries is down about four per cent as a result.

BC Ferries is running its full summer schedule of sailings and CEO David Hahn estimates the lighter traffic means the corporation will probably take a loss of about $20 million on the year. But Hahn rejects the suggestion that rising ferry fares are keeping people away, because Statistics Canada figures show U.S. visits have slumped across Canada while traffic south has soared.

“The strength of the Canadian dollar, the price of fuel, has driven Canadians across the board, not just in B.C., down into the United States … it’s a reverse of what happened in 2003 and 2004,” Hahn told CKNW radio Thursday. “I guarantee the people with the big motorhomes in Alberta are thinking twice about coming west. They’re going south because they can buy a lot more fuel for a lot less money down in the States.”

In 2001, a vehicle with two passengers cost about $50 to travel from the B.C. mainland to Vancouver Island. That’s up to about $75 today, with proportionally larger increases on smaller routes. Hahn said BC Ferries’ fuel costs have tripled to $120 million a year since was appointed CEO in 2003.

Foot traffic on the ferries is up as travellers occasionally find sailing waits for walk-on passengers.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom put a cap on ferry fare increases this spring, one of several moves billed as part of Premier Christy Clark’s “families first” agenda. Fare increases of up to eight per cent on northern and smaller routes were capped at 4.15 per cent while the B.C. Ferry Commissioner reviews rates and makes recommendations to the government by early 2012.

Hahn noted that vehicle travel to the U.S. is up across Canada, and airport figures are showing the same trend. Passengers to Vancouver airport peaked in 2008 with more than 17 million passengers, but have not recovered completely from the U.S.-led economic crisis, even in the Olympic year of 2010.

Arrivals are also down since 2008 at Victoria, Comox and Prince Rupert airports.