Reliable ferry service, tourism and the question of balance - Salish Current
March 27, 2024
Reliable ferry service, tourism and the question of balance
Toby Cooper

Once onboard and underway, getting there is fun, judging from a photo opp aboard the Yakima heading out of Anacortes to the San Juan Islands on a misty August morning. The islands’ visitors bureau has raised concerns about the impact of negative messages about ferry service on the county’s economy and local businesses. (Salish Current © 2022)

March 27, 2024
Reliable ferry service, tourism and the question of balance
Toby Cooper

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Deborah Hoskinson, executive director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, reported to the San Juan County Council on March 12 that last year’s broad downturn in tourist activity, including at least a 4% drop in lodging tax collection, was directly related to service interruptions of the Washington State Ferries.

She identified selected businesses in the county’s tourist industry that experienced declines in 2023. 

Citing anecdotal data, Hoskinson said that occupancy rates for some Friday Harbor lodgings were down by double-digit amounts in some months. One whale watching operator showed a slump of over 30% in all four months of the 2023 peak season.

An Orcas lodging establishment experienced both a drop in reservations and an increase in cancellations. Attendance at the Friday Harbor Film Festival suffered.

In contrast, Hoskinson said that non-ferry-served destinations such as Lake Chelan and Whidbey Island showed increases in tourism last year.

Noting her data was anecdotal, Hoskinson said she took the COVID years out of the comparison and used 2019 as the last “normal” year. In 2019, tourism contributed $20.6 million in county taxes, as reported on the visitors bureau website.

“We are essentially a trade association for the islands’ tourism industry,” said Hoskinson, concluding, “people just stopped coming out here because of the ferry news.”

Managing expectations

Dana Warr, a communications deputy at Washington State Ferries (WSF), acknowledged that the agency had issued public advisories to alert travelers to possible unexpected ferry cancellations. One notice cautioned that ferry operations were unlikely to return to normal “any time soon.” 

With the theme “Getting here is half the fun,” the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau is changing the tone around messages about ferry service in the islands. A visitors bureau report to the San Juan County Council includes video clips posted on social media showing tourists on ferry decks under pristine skies. (SJIVB)

To counter WSF’s messaging, the visitors bureau engaged in an Instagram campaign. “At the very least,” said Hoskinson, “we need to keep marketing to counteract the ferries’ negative news. We must put our positive news out there.”

In addition, she said, “We’ve been working with the WSF communications department since last November on more positive messaging.” 

The visitors bureau campaign featured the theme, “Getting here is half the fun,” and one of the video clips posted on social media showed tourists on ferry decks under pristine skies. 

“Once you leave the ferry dock,” said the narrator, “a whole new world opens up. You’re able to take a moment to breathe in and savor the beauty.”

The League of Women Voters Observer Corps report of the March 12 meeting characterizes  the Bureau’s efforts “to improve the tone” of WSF press releases.

Warr said WSF’s intent was always to “manage public expectations” so people could make informed decisions about the risks of getting stranded. However, he added, the bureau’s wish to review WSF’s press releases before they go out was “unprecedented.”

“Ferries are vital links for everything, including vacations,” he said. “We are aware of the economic impacts.”

Frustration in the community

The irony of the bureau sparring with WSF over messaging caught the attention of Michael Johnson, an advocate for limits to tourism in San Juan County. “Why is it that ‘progress’ is measured only in comparison to the already-record-breaking numbers of the past?” he wrote in an online forum.

Johnson — who said he witnessed the descent of Telluride, Colorado, from quiet mountain village to glitzy tourist mecca — speaks for a segment of county residents who have become weary of tourism’s traffic, pollution, crowding and loss of neighborhood integrity. “Without limits, tourism takes on a life of its own,” he wrote.

County council member Jane Fuller said she appreciated the visitors bureau’s March 12 presentation, including their documentation of negative impacts on the county economy. 

“Bottom line is that there is a need for tourism in the county for the well-being of our economy. That [we] cannot deny,” she wrote to Johnson. “A balance in the management of tourism is needed … this has been the case for decades, and will always be so.”

But balance, countered Johnson, is at the core of San Juan County’s dilemma. If success is only measured by trending growth, “the problems are never ending and the solutions are never adequate.”

“‘Balance’ is what led our previous county council to urge [San Juan County Health Officer] Frank James to downplay the need to extend Phase II of the tourist lockdown in the COVID crisis,” he wrote. 

“‘Balance,’” he added, “is why the visitors bureau wants visitors to forget there were 3,519 ferry cancellations across Western Washington last year and instead bask in the notion that ‘getting here [will be] half the fun.’”

Crew cancellations down

John Vezina, director of planning, customer and government Relations at WSF, is a realist regarding ferry reliability. “Cancellations due to crewing are down,” he told Salish Current, “but it is also winter, which tends to be more stable.” 

Since crewing issues are the single largest contributor to cancellations these days, especially during and immediately after the COVID era, Vezina has instituted measures to improve WSF’s recruiting, hiring and training. “Expect crewing to be much less of an issue in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.

Prior to 2023, WSF measured reliability against a 99% target— meaning 99% of scheduled sailings had to be completed successfully to meet the target. “Last year became a watershed,” said Vezina, noting that this year, “The new goal is 95%.”

The primary result of last year’s watershed moment for Vezina was the unified political will it created. County council members Fuller, Cindy Wolf and Christine Minney joined forces with the Friday Harbor Town Council, multiple advisory boards and a broad swath of citizens to speak with one voice to Gov. Jay Inslee and the 40th district legislators. [Read more: “Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action,” Salish Current, Nov. 20, 2023]

Vezina is counting on a combination of enhanced crew availability and the now-promised new generation of hybrid-electric ferries to push WSF’s reliability goal back to 99%. 

Passenger-only options

Vezina is watching for the $500,000 passenger-only ferry study proviso in the 2024 transportation Supplemental budget passed this month by the legislature now awaiting the governor’s signature. [Read more: “Legislators throw a life ring to Washington’s ‘other’ ferries,” Salish Current, Feb. 21, 2024]

The proviso specifically names San Juan County’s “interisland passenger-only ferry service” as a beneficiary of the study effort.

Vezina, Fuller and even the visitors bureau see the addition of passenger ferries as an enhancement to the county’s marine transit service. Bringing visitors to the islands without their cars imparts its own measure of balance. [Read more: “Is passenger-ferry service for the islands possible?,” Salish Current, Feb. 7, 2024]

After the budget is signed, a progress report is due to the governor and the transportation committees of the legislature by Oct. 30, and a final report by June 1, 2025.

“My priority is still the San Juans,” said Vezina.

— Reported by Toby Cooper

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