AquaLink passenger ferry takes a run this fall

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After staying quiet in their home communities for many long months of the coronavirus pandemic, Gulf Islands residents and visitors are being offered a new opportunity for exploring nearby islands.

AquaLink is a pilot project funded by the Southern Gulf Islands Tourism Partnership (SGITP) via a Western Economic Diversification Canada grant. It will see scheduled runs on Gulf Islands Water Taxi vessels connecting all five of the southern Gulf Islands every Saturday and Sunday in September.

“This is meant to be not only for our visitor economy but our communities as well, which is one of the reasons we wanted to do this pilot in September,” said SGITP chair Randy Cunningham. “We think it will be more accessible [to them]. We think there will be some visitors on the islands at that time, but hopefully the community will use it as well.”

SGITP received $120,000 to finance the pilot in 2019, but negotiated with Western Economic Diversification Canada to extend the deadline since COVID restrictions meant they could not get started as intended in April 2020.

Chris Hall, a former general manager at Poet’s Cove Resort and the SGITP board member who is managing the project, worked over the winter to discuss options with local water taxi companies and to formalize the arrangement that now exists with Gulf Islands Water Taxi. He also consulted with the communities involved about what they might be interested in.

The project takes in some lessons learned from Tour Des Îles, the festival that connected the islands with multiple passenger ferries in several consecutive years (until COVID-19). Hall pointed out the AquaLink plan has some key differences to the festival, however. The pilot will feature just one return trip with stops to all islands and back in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening, starting from Gulf Islands Water Taxi’s home base in Ganges Harbour, and will seek to sustain travel throughout the entire month.

“Tour des Îles was a big event that took place over the course of a weekend, but I think for us it’s trying to determine the feasibility of whether people will use this over the course of the month, and eventually over the course of the year, with the end-goal of making this a permanent thing — probably not through the winter months, but especially through those shoulder seasons,” Hall said.

Hall said that would bolster local tourism and help locals explore the other islands as well. The project also supports car-free travel.

“I’m excited to come over and spend the day in Ganges at the farmers’ market and go for lunch and be able to come home in the evening,” Hall said. “I think with the feedback we received in just the first day, that a lot of people are looking forward to doing that.”

Part of the pilot will be to determine who will ride on the AquaLink and who will not, Cunningham added. That data will feed into the work the Capital Regional District’s Southern Gulf Islands electoral area and its elected rep Dave Howe have been doing to improve options for transportation on and between the islands.

Cunningham noted Salt Spring is a little better served than most, with its established transit system and three different ferry terminals, but connections to the other islands could definitely be improved.

Up to 40 people at one time can be on Gulf Islands Water Taxi’s largest boat. If there is less uptake for the pilot, they also have a small boat serving up to 10 passengers. Cost is $21 per adult per trip and $10.50 for children.

Fares would have to be quite a bit higher to run the system without any outside funding help, but the organization hopes to secure more grants and support from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure after the initial pilot period. They also envision a new entity would be formed to run the service, since that is outside SGITP’s mandate.

Schedules are posted and bookings are being accepted now at aqualink.ca. The website also has a page for each island that describes amenities either within close reach of the docks or easily accessible to them.

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