‘All hands on deck’ advocacy brings cruise ships back to Victoria

The Queen Elizabeth makes her first stop in Victoria, BC.
The Queen Elizabeth makes her first stop in Victoria, BC. Photo credit: Kevin Light.

Federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra’s announcement in Victoria on July 15 clearing the way for the cruise ship industry to resume this November came as a tremendous relief for the businesses and organizations rallying to save the industry.

It’s been a trying 16 months for the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, which manages the Victoria Cruise Ship Terminal at the Breakwater District. When their business came to a screeching halt they spent much of their time managing the fallout while trying to forge ahead with their planned shore power project. When news came this Spring that the U.S. could allow their cruise ships to bypass the city entirely, the future of cruise in Victoria became even more uncertain.

Now, with this latest announcement, we can expect a busy 2022 cruise ship season, with downtown Victoria streets once again filled with the hustle and bustle of passengers looking to shop, dine and explore.

GVHA CEO Ian Robertson says the announcement by the Minister is the result of leaders across Greater Victoria coming together in a collaborative effort to bring cruise back. He tells Douglas what struck him the most was the speed with which people responded to his call for support. “Within 24 hours of me asking,” he says “we had a letter from all 13 Mayors and the Songhees and Esquimalt Chiefs urging Ottawa to make this decision.” That, he says, helped tip the scales in their favor.

Robertson also cites the support of organizations like Destination Greater Victoria, the Association of Canadian Port Authorities, Victoria Cruise Industry Alliance, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and of BC, the BC Maritime Employers Association, ILWU Canada, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and more. “I’m thankful to everyone for coming along and being on board. Someone said that it was ‘all hands on deck,’ and, well, this was really quite literally all hands on deck. And I’m really grateful and proud to be a part of that process.”

Greater Victoria Chamber CEO Bruce Williams says supporting the GVHA’s advocacy work was a no-brainer. “We needed government to make it clear that cruise ships are welcome in Canada, and we needed a date so that industry can plan to return as soon as possible. I’m happy that the federal government heard us and understands the importance of this industry to our region as well as to Canada’s economy.”

Balancing economic impact with sustainable business practices

As a recent report commissioned by the GVHA confirms, Victoria’s cruise ship industry contributes more than $130 million to the region’s economy and is responsible for more than 800 jobs.

That contribution is set to continue – but in a more sustainable, community-focused way. Robertson says they’ve taken community feedback to heart and are looking at revising schedules to ensure downtown and James Bay aren’t overwhelmed by passengers when several ships arrive in a day. “We have to find a balance,” he says, “and we have some initiatives planned to do just that. We’re setting up a community liaison committee to build better outreach, and we’re just finalizing the details on the installation of six air quality monitoring stations we’ll set up throughout the Breakwater District, the James Bay neighborhood and perhaps the Inner Harbour and Fisherman’s Wharf to monitor the effects of emissions. And that will help us work with the cruise lines to reduce emissions and help our business case in supporting the installation of shore power.”

Speaking of shore power, the GVHA has continued advocating for its installation through the pandemic and is confident the support they need will come now that the cruise ship industry has been given the green light to resume.

Despite the tremendous strain the GVHA has experienced over the past year, Robertson says there’s been a silver lining. “COVID allowed us as an organization to tell the story about who we are and why we’re here, including sharing fact that we rely on cruise for 70% of our revenue and that the surplus we earn goes back into supporting the community amenities that we all enjoy, like the Breakwater, the lower Causeway and Ship’s Point. I think people are realizing the role that we play in a prosperous economy, and we are looking to do that in a sustainable way.”

With cruises returning, the impending reopening of the US/Canada border and the anticipated return of international travel, 2022 will be a much stronger year for tourism in Victoria.

Paul Nursey, CEO of Destination Greater Victoria, notes the federal minister’s announcement allows the time necessary to prepare. “The cruise business, like international tour business has a long lead time required to prepare itineraries, price them, including in tariffs and brochures, market and build business through the sales system. There is an entire business to business system behind these products and we were cutting it very close to losing the 2022 season. This is good news, but our advocacy for our industry and community is not over. We need to get our valued international ferries running again, Clipper and Coho are also vital, and they need a framework for a pathway back as well.”

The surprising benefit of cruise ship traffic

Robertson says he was also surprised to learn how local businesses feel about the cruise ship industry, beyond the money tourists bring in. He remembers a conversation with a Johnson Street restaurant owner who told him how much they missed the cruise ship passengers. “I asked them why, and they said they missed the vibrancy the passengers bring to our downtown core. So it’s not just about the economic benefit, it’s about the activity and the people that come here and contribute to the life of our downtown core.”

Downtown Victoria is the most obvious beneficiary of the local cruise ship industry’s return. Jeff Bray, Executive Director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, says being able to have a 2022 season is great news for downtown businesses, “as this can mean a significant injection of foot traffic that has been sorely absent the last 16 months. This is another positive sign that Downtown is returning to the vibrant place it was pre-pandemic. This will mean more employment, and much needed revenue for retailers and restaurants!”

Robertson says he doesn’t have a confirmed schedule for 2022 yet, but, he says, he expects demand to be strong, with one cruise ship executive telling him their 2022 bookings are already outperforming 2019’s.

While passengers aboard their bucket list cruises to Alaska don’t necessarily know they’re stopping in Victoria – and may never have heard of our city – when they do arrive, they’re impressed. Robertson says “passenger experience ratings for Victoria rival some of the ratings for the ports in Alaska, so I know the cruise lines were anxious for this signal because they said they want to come back. They want to be back in Victoria next year.”

The Transport Canada announcement is available here.

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