Tour operators grapple with fuel costs but fear turning away customers

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Designed to go hard and fast, whale-watching boats are big fuel guzzlers

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Andrew Newman had a shock the other day when he went to fill up his Zodiac and the marina attendant told him the price was $2.31 a litre.

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“I remembered the day before that it was two” dollars, says the boss of White Rock Sea Tours and Whale Watch, whose tank contains 800 liters. “It’s increased by 30 cents!”

Tour operators and tour operators say they are grappling with how to handle soaring fuel costs. Their options are limited and some fear they will pass the costs on to tourists when they return after the pandemic.

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About a month or two ago, after failing to raise prices even as fuel became more expensive, Newman added a fuel surcharge of $20 per person.

He thinks other industry players don’t want to talk about fuel surcharges, but they’re also thinking about it.

“I just did it because I can’t operate otherwise. It’s getting harder and harder,” he says.

Another option that helps is to juggle schedules to only take out boats that are fully loaded. That doesn’t always work out and he’s had to forfeit business a few times when clients couldn’t be flexible with their plans.

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

“I would imagine whale watchers would have a bigger (fuel) expense because they’re using bigger boats, trying to get around quickly. And that’s where you really start to go big,” says Jeremy Patterson, director of operations at False Creek Ferries.

“Because we are small boats and we cruise around False Creek with smaller engines, we are fine. We are not happy, but it would affect more (businesses like whale watching).

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

During the first pandemic summer, his business made just 15% of sales in a normal year. The following summer things improved, but only about 40% of a normal year.

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Because it will be important to recreate momentum in the market, Towers thinks it might be difficult to impose a fuel surcharge. Another downside is that customers then expect them to be withdrawn when fuel prices drop. Instead, to cover some of the increased fuel cost, he increased his ticket price by $10.

He runs four boats and before the pandemic, he was spending between $200,000 and $250,000 a year on fuel. Now it’s more like $300,000.

At Wild Whales Vancouver, office manager Ashley Keegan says they initially increased ticket prices by $5 to recoup COVID-related losses. Then it was increased by an additional $5 to account for increases in the cost of fuel.

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

They have also tried to only use fuller boats and also refrain from paying a fuel surcharge, wishing to keep their firm child rate at $95 so as not to exceed the $100 mark.

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

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