Placentia residents fearful for future as ferry delays stall crucial tourism season

Anita O'Keefe is the president of Placentia's historical society, which owns and operates two heritage buildings. She says delays to the start date of the new Marine Atlantic ferry have damaged the town's tourism industry and small businesses.
Anita O'Keefe, president of Placentia's historical society, says delays to the start date of the new Marine Atlantic ferry have damaged the town's tourism industry and small businesses. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

When summer comes, Anita O'Keefe says, the small town of Placentia eagerly awaits the arrival of ferries to the nearby port of Argentia.

Every week, thousands of tourists hop off the ferry and visit the town before heading east to St. John's, 130 kilometres away.

But this year, the ferry has yet to arrive. O'Keefe says it's leaving residents frustrated, upset and fearful for the future.

"This has been one of the lowest times ever," said O'Keefe, the president of the town's historical society, which owns and operates two heritage buildings in Placentia.

"We welcome our guests from all over the world, and we look forward to that.… And now all of a sudden there's nothing, we have nothing, we have no visitors coming in, nothing to look forward to, and are worried about what may happen."

The first voyage of the new Marine Atlantic ferry, the Ala'suinu, has been delayed three times due to maintenance issues and repair work. The ferry was supposed to take passengers on the North Sydeny-Argentia run starting mid-June.

Marine Atlantic says passengers are currently being rebooked on other boats to Channel-Port aux Basques up to July 10, over 800 kilometres from Placentia.

WATCH | This Placentia pub owner says the town is missing out on thousands of people passing through:

Placentia Mayor Keith Pearson says Marine Atlantic should have a better backup plan. Without one, he says, passengers are losing faith in the company. He's heard about tourists who have cancelled their trips to Newfoundland because of the delays.

Pearson said residents are feeling "total frustration."

"It seems like nobody's listening and nobody cares."

Losing hope

William Neville opened a new restaurant and bar, called Dockside Pub, in the town last July. While the small business relies on local support throughout the year, he says at least half of their daytime business last summer came from tourists.

Neville, who has lived in the town his whole life, says he hasn't seen this few tourists since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's definitely a worst-case scenario for people coming into the area," said Neville. "Personally, I wouldn't get my hopes up about July 10."

Marine Atlantic has taken possession of its newest vessel, named the Ala’suinu, which will soon begin its journey from a shipyard in China all the way to the waters of Atlantic Canada.
The Ala'suinu has been delayed three times due to maintenance issues and repair work. (Marine Atlantic)

Aside from some funding, O'Keefe says the town's two heritage buildings — the O'Reilly House Museum and St. Luke's Cultural Heritage Centre — rely heavily on tourist donations to help with upkeep and maintenance work.

She says a lack of tourists causes a domino effect in the community.

"It affects our economic development in the area as well," she said. "Not only the upkeep of our buildings, but they don't stay for meals, they don't stay for accommodations. So it affects the entire area."

The third and most recent ferry delay is related to debris being found in fuel and lubrication lines. Two weeks before the vessel was scheduled to begin service, technicians found a problem with its lubrication system.

In a statement last week, Marine Atlantic said experts have been called in to help address the current problems with the vessel but are discovering new complications as they work.

Ala'suinu is owned by Swedish company Stena, which built the ferry in China. Marine Atlantic is leasing the vessel for five years, after which it will determine whether it will purchase the ferry.

Although the summer is far from over, O'Keefe says the uncertainty of when the ferry will sail has left a lasting impression on the community.

"I think the damage has already been done," she said. "I don't know about bouncing back from what we lost already, but we could probably pick up and keep going, but we have lost already. And when you lose something, you lose it."

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