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U.S. ferries cast adrift in border reopening, want clarity on resuming service

Left out of Monday’s reopening, tourism organization considers legal action against feds
The MV Coho hasn’t seen a recreational passenger in about 16 months, but has taken voyages every six weeks to remain seaworthy. (Keith Thorpe/Black Press Media)

Private ferry services plying the coastline between B.C. and Washington State were excluded from Monday’s border re-openings, a situation that has left them frustrated and in economic limbo.

On Aug. 9, the Canada Border Services Agency announced that fully-vaccinated residents of the United States could pass through the country’s land borders for the first time in 16 months. The decision also means American pleasure watercraft are also now permitted to arrive in Canada, but it is unclear when passenger ferries will be allowed to make trips between U.S. and Canadian ports, said Destination Greater Victoria CEO Paul Nursey.

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“This is devastating news and it can’t be underscored,” he said, calling the lack of details on the resumption of international ferry traffic “the height of incompetence by the federal government.”

According to Destination Greater Victoria figures, Clipper Vacations ships and the MV Coho ferry from Washington State account for 750,000 visitors to Victoria annually and as many as 1,400 hotel night bookings in a month. In 2017, spending from international visitors arriving through Victoria’s Belleville Terminal totalled $100.5 million.

“We’re busy now with Canadian travellers, but in a matter of weeks when Canadians go back to school, our demand’s going to fall off a cliff,” Nursey said.

Destination Greater Victoria is considering a class action suit against the Canadian government for damages sustained to its hotel and tourist attraction members, he added.

Ryan Burles, co-owner of the Black Ball Ferry Line which operates of the Coho, said the nearly 65-year-old vessel has sailed every six weeks to keep it seaworthy without customer revenue. What’s more, he said, several First Nations rely on the convenience of the ferry to maintain family ties between Washington and B.C.

Dr. Mel Krajden is medical director of the BC Centre for Disease Control and was a member of the Minister of Health’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Advisory Panel, whose three reports contained recommendations for the reopening of Canada’s land and air borders.

Opening land borders to fully vaccinated U.S. travellers was an “enormous step forward and a complicated one,” he said.

Considering small number of international ferry travellers relative to those in automobile or aircraft, Krajden said, Canada prioritized where they could safely screen the influx of U.S. arrivals for negative COVID tests and full vaccinations, while allowing necessary delays in customs processing. “(International ferry travel) wasn’t a discussion point on the panel,” he said.

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The full renewal of Black Ball Ferry Line’s services would require less restrictions than are in place in both the U.S. and Canada, Burles said. Thirty per cent of their traffic revenue is made from Canadian departures, which the U.S. has yet to allow. Additionally, Burles said he can’t imagine U.S. travellers spending $132 for a COVID-19 test to take the MV Coho for a one-to-two night trip to Canada.

“We would just like to see some sort of plan,” he said.

– With files from The Canadian Press