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Eastern P.E.I. businesses gather to express concerns about reliability of Wood Islands ferry | CBC News

Businesses in Eastern Prince Edward Island are still feeling ripple effects from Northumberland Ferries Ltd. cancellations and delays earlier in the summer season, people who gathered in Montague Tuesday night were told.

The ferry service between Wood Islands, P.E.I., and Caribou, N.S., is running smoothly at the moment, departing from each side of the Northumberland Strait eight times daily.

Not so earlier in the season, when the 30-year-old MV Confederation was out of service due to broken engine parts — with the exception of a few crossings on the Canada Day weekend — from June 17 to July 10. With the leased Quebec ferry MV Saaremaa 1 still in drydock, no boat was available to take passengers and vehicles across the strait.

“It’s very frustrating for our members,” said Blair Aitken, president of the Eastern P.E.I. Chamber of Commerce. “The impact hurts. It just hurts.” 

The board was so concerned about the ferry service that it organized a public meeting on the topic, and more than 70 people piled into a room at Lanes Riverhouse Inn in Montague Tuesday night. 

Aitken said it wasn’t just tourism businesses that suffered while MV Confederation was tied up; transport and forestry businesses need a reliable ferry as an alternative to using the Confederation Bridge on the other end of the Island.

“I’ve spoken to members of our chamber whose businesses at this time of year rely on the ferry,” Aitken said. “Having to go to the bridge and make that long round [way] about… added hundreds of dollars per trip.”

Blair Aitken, president of the Eastern P.E.I. Chamber of Commerce.
‘We can’t get by with one ferry and a loaner that is subject to leave without notice,’ says Blair Aitken, president of the Eastern P.E.I. Chamber of Commerce. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Mechanical problems happen, but the chamber of commerce sees a bigger issue at play.

“We’re afraid of the traveling public losing faith in the service and therefore just avoiding it. And really all that does is takes us on a downward spiral on the viability of the service itself,” Aitken said.

Many people at the meeting said Northumberland Ferries Ltd., which operates the service using vessels owned by Transport Canada, should have a contingency plan for issues like mechanical failure.

 Jeffery Haight, who runs The Boys Comfort Cuisine. 
‘We noticed a 53-per-cent drop within two weeks’ after the Confederation broke down, says Jeffery Haight, who runs The Boys Comfort Cuisine.  (Tony Davis/CBC)

“You need two [vessels]. You need a back-up. It has to be running all year round. We need to be a four-season destination,” said Jeffery Haight, who runs The Boys Comfort Cuisine. 

Haight’s business is located in Vernon Bridge, well on the way to Charlottetown, but he provides catering services and meals to campgrounds, cottages and other businesses in Eastern P.E.I. 

“Our sales to tourists so far this year are $610,” he said. After the Confederation stopped running, he added: “We noticed a 53-per-cent drop within two weeks.”

Over 70 people piled into a room at Riverhouse Inn in Montague to voice their concerns about the ferry service.
More than 70 people piled into a room at Lanes Riverhouse Inn in Montague Tuesday night to voice their concerns about the ferry service. (Tony Davis/CBC)

The other ferry on NFL’s peak summer run, MV Holiday Island, was sent for scrapping after a fire last year. MV Saaremaa 1, a temporary replacement for the Holiday Island, started sailing last week but its owner has reserved the right to call it back if it’s needed to replace an out-of-commission ferry on a Quebec route. 

“We can’t get by with one ferry and a loaner that is subject to leave without notice. What we need is an interim solution. We need a second, and if we could, a third for redundancy,” Aitken said.

MLA Cory Deagle Deagle
‘On the tourism side, I can’t promise you a new ferry tomorrow,’ says P.E.I. Minister of Tourism Cory Deagle. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

P.E.I. Tourism Minister Cory Deagle was at the meeting too, and talked about what the province has been able to do to help. When the ferry service shut down in June, the municipality of Belfast was given $3,000 for a buy-local campaign, he noted.

“That’s not going to replace the amount of tourists… and by the time we can get that money out the door and a campaign going, you know, that time is already missed. So I completely understand. We tried to help, it probably didn’t help much, but I am open to any ideas that we can do in Eastern P.E.I. to help,” Deagle said.

The province did take the step of pushing Eastern P.E.I. to the top of the province’s tourism website so that it was the first thing potential visitors saw when they searched for accommodations on the Island, Deagle said.

“I will push, I will fight, I will do what I can and be a pain in the federal government’s backside,” he said of the quest for a new vessel. “On the tourism side, I can’t promise you a new ferry tomorrow.”

A replacement for the Holiday Island was announced in the 2019 federal budget, but the new ferry isn’t expected to be ready to sail until at least 2028.


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