The company that runs the Chi-Cheemaun ferry hopes billing the picturesque ride across Georgian Bay as a tourism experience will boost its ridership.

The ferry moves passengers and cars between South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island and Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula. But in recent years, the number of people making the two-hour crossing has been in decline.

The Chi-Cheemaun ferry carried 27 per cent fewer passengers last year, compared with 2005.

A report prepared for the ferry's operator – the Owen Sound Transportation Company — determined the Chi-Cheemaun is now seen as more of a tourist experience, but it's still being marketed as a transportation link.

"We are ferry operators and we're pretty good ferry operators," said Susan Schrempf, the president of Owen Sound Transportation Company. "But we are not good marketers."

The Chi-Cheemaun has been operating since 1974. At that time the northern highway network was less developed, Schrempf said.

Water levels a challenge

Declining passenger numbers are not the only issue the Chi-Cheemaun faces. Dropping water levels in Georgian Bay are also a concern, according to Susan Schrempf, the president of Owen Sound Transportation Company.

She said the water line has dropped to unprecedented levels and, if the trend continues, the ferry may have trouble negotiating the entry into South Baymouth. Dredging was required in 1972 to make way for the ferry, and may need to be done again, Schrempf added.

"[Water levels] are not an immediate concern, but they are something people need to wrap their heads around now, because mobilizing dredge equipment requires several months," Schrempf said.

Schrempf said she also believes some passengers avoid the ferry when levels are low because they assume it isn't running — but there will likely be enough water for the ferry to run on schedule this spring.

"Everybody was using [the ferry]. It was full to overfull," she said. "Now there are many options, many different ways to get to northern Ontario."

"So we have to stop thinking about transportation and think more about tourism."

Schrempf said it costs about $60 for a car with one passenger to ride the ferry.

Tourist experience planned

In response to the report, the company is looking into tourism packages involving local hotels, Schrempf said. It also plans to eliminate the reservation fee and start a customer loyalty program.

The provincial government spent about $1.2 million last year — up from $800,000 — to subsidize about 15 per cent of the operating costs for the Chi-Cheemaun. That number needs to be closer to 10 per cent, Schrempf said, adding that boosting passenger numbers will help. Currently about $6.5 million in revenue is made from fares.

While the passenger numbers are dwindling numbers on the Chi-Cheemaun, the boat still serves as a vital connection for the southern Ontario tourist crowd, said Alan MacNevine, the mayor of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands.

"We see during ferry arrival times a fairly huge flow of traffic and we're always interested in diverting them to stop and stay in our municipalities," he said.