CORNER BROOK — After sitting for hours without a trip, watching hundreds of cruise ship passengers board buses, taxi driver Max Fillatre was a frustrated man Thursday morning.
The 24-year-old has been driving for City Cabs for nearly a year and said he was hopeful cruise ship season would put extra cash in his pocket by bringing thousands of potential customers to the area. So far however, this hasn’t been the case and on this day, Fillatre and about a dozen other taxis were lined up waiting in their designated area across the dock, prohibited from venturing closer than the numerous tour and school buses.
Older drivers have told Fillatre of past days during cruise ship season, when in a good day cabbies could earn as much as $400. With some buses providing free trips to shopping areas in town and with many passengers having pre-booked area tours, there wasn’t much taxi business to be had Thursday.
“It’s got me turned off from coming down here,” Fillatre said. “They have to make a living too, but as soon as a bus takes a load another two are coming to pick up more. It’s money down the drain for us.”
Tour prices for taxi companies in the city are set at a flat rate. For example, for $250 dollars, you can take a tour to Gros Morne and for $75 passengers can get a one and one-hour tour of Corner Brook. These prices are per trip, not per passenger, and can include up to four passengers.
Fillatre said its actually cheaper for visitors to take taxi tours since fares can be split, while buses charge each rider individually.
“Wouldn’t you rather just split it with a few friends, go on a taxi ride, have a meal and go where you please, instead of being stuffed into a bus?” he said.
Sean Noble has been driving cab in Corner Taxi for 20 years. He said there seems to be growing confusion about the level of access afforded taxis as opposed to buses.
He said he can remember a time when he could drop passengers off at the dock, but tighter security measure means he has to drop his fares a fair distance from security gates, while buses can pull up much closer.
“We can’t even get out on the dock to drop off passengers,” Noble said. “Some are in wheelchairs and some are crippled. The security this morning told us they have to cross this parking lot with traffic going everywhere.”
Noble said there has also been confusion about the cost of a city tour, something which prompted him to put a sign on his vehicle advertizing his rates.
He admits its hard to compete with buses from around the island which are able to pre-book tours, something taxis are unable to do.
“These buses from Port aux Basques and Bonne Bay ... I don’t see why they should be here taking business from us,” he said. “ It’s not set up for the cabs before they come off the boat because we come in here individually, line up and wait. Every bus load is taking business from us.”
Ships request tour buses
According to Corner Brook Port Corporation manager and CEO Jackie Chow, many of the buses are booked by tour providers such as Wildland Tours and Atlantic Cruise Ship Services at the request of individual cruise ships.
In order to ensure cruise ships will choose to visit the city, Chow said its crucial to offer as many services as required by passengers of the ship. In some cases, she said the port is forced to offer free shuttle service to downtown areas or the ships will simply sail elsewhere.
While Thursday’s cruise ship visit didn’t provide much business for the taxi driver, Chow said it was a different story Wednesday when two ships visited. Bus tours were sold out on each ship and as a result, hundreds of people were looking for taxi tours, but there were no cabs available.
“If we didn’t have the shuttle buses down there, the taxis could never keep up with the business,” Chow said, noting the city has 80 licensed taxis which aren’t all on the job at the same time. “Today it seems like the taxis aren’t quite as busy, but we never know from one ship to the next how many buses or taxis we will need.”
She said there is a shortage of charter buses throughout Atlantic Canada and as a result, tour providers have to book buses from around the island to meet the demand. The shortage is such an issue, that Chow doesn’t feel she would be able to book two larger ships at once since it would be impossible to keep passengers from standing around for hours, despite all the buses and taxis being in operation.
While she admits taxis are crucial to handling the transportation demand and showcasing the city, concerns over buses getting better access to the dock comes down to security and safety. Since buses carry the most passengers, it’ås safer for them to drop passengers off closer.
“It would be really nice to get (taxis) as close as possible, but if they have to drive through an area that has 100 people in line for a bus that doesn’t always make sense,” she said. “We have to look at how closely we can get people realistically and safely.”
This year, the port will see 37,000 cruise ship visitors on the dock throughout the season. Some ships onload passengers in groups of a few hundred, while others onload in the thousands. She said this could mean the difference between taxis having a busy day or slow one.
“That’s something we have no control over,” she said. “We don’t know when the ship comes in if we’re going to see 200 people at a time or 2,000.”
The port currently has a committee of various groups around the city, such as the Downtown Business Association, Western DMO and the Greater Corner Brook Board of Trade.
Chow said taxi companies have yet to come on board for the committee, but she insists they would be welcome to do so.