Metro Vancouver tour operators grapple with fuel costs, but fear turning off customers after the pandemic

Designed to run hard and fast, whale-watching boats are heavy fuel users

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Andrew Newman got a shock the other day when he went to fuel up his Zodiac and the marine attendant told him the price was $2.31 a liter.

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“I remembered, the day before, it being two” dollars, said the owner of White Rock Sea Tours and Whale Watch, whose tank holds 800 liters. “It went up 30 cents!”

Tour and transportation operators say they are grappling with how to manage soaring fuel costs. Their options are limited and some are wary of passing costs onto tourists just as they return after the pandemic.

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About a month or two ago, after not raising prices even as fuel got more expensive, Newman added a fuel surcharge of $20 a person.

He thinks others in the business don’t want to talk about fuel surcharges, but they’re also considering them.

“I just did it because I can’t operate any other way. It’s becoming harder and harder,” he says.

Another option that helps is juggling schedules to only take out boats that are fully loaded. This doesn’t always work out and he has had to forgo business a few times when customers couldn’t be flexible with their plans.

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The degree of the impact of fuel costs is less intense for other tourism operators.

“I would imagine the whale watchers would have bigger (fuel) expenses because they’re running bigger boats, trying to move quickly. And that’s when you really start to consume vast amounts,” says Jeremy Patterson, operations manager at False Creek Ferries.

“Because we’re small boats and just puttering around False Creek with smaller engines, we’re OK. We’re not happy, but it would affect (businesses like whale watching) more.”

Cedric Towers, owner and founder of Vancouver Whale Watch, says the current situation comes after the last two seasons have been horrible for his peers.

During the first pandemic summer, his company only did 15 per cent of a normal year’s sales. The next summer, things improved, but only to about 40 per cent of a normal year.

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Because it’ll be important to rebuild momentum in the market, Towers feels it might be tricky to impose a fuel surcharge. Another downside is that customers then later expect them to be removed when fuel prices drop. Instead, to cover a portion of the fuel cost increase, he’s raised his ticket price by $10.

He runs four boats and before the pandemic, he would spend $200,000 to $250,000 a year on fuel. Now, it’s more like it will be $300,000.

At Wild Whales Vancouver, office manager Ashley Keegan says they initially raised ticket prices $5 to recover COVID-related losses. Then, it was bumped up another $5 to adjust for fuel cost increases.

But this doesn’t begin to cover the real-time increases that have happened since they made that decision.

They have also been trying to run fuller boats only and are also holding off on a fuel surcharge, wanting to keep their child rate firm at $95 so as to not go over the $100 mark.

However, “it’s definitely something we’ll probably have to change at some point.”

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