GVHA Op-Ed: welcoming back a critical part of our region’s visitor economy

On April 9, 2022, the first ship to call to Canada since before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at the port of Victoria. Greater Victoria Harbour Authority CEO Ian Robertson reflects on the milestone and the challenges his team have overcome during the pandemic.

MS Koningsdam, a Pinnacle-class cruise ship operated by Holland America Line, was the first cruise ship to dock in Victoria in 2022.
MS Koningsdam, a Pinnacle-class cruise ship operated by Holland America Line, was the first cruise ship to dock in Victoria in 2022. Photo: Kevin Light Photography.

For two years, the staff of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority worked to make the safe resumption of cruise in our region a reality. While there were weeks where it felt like we were steering a ship without a course and facing headwinds in all directions, we always had our destination in mind.

Health and safety have been, and remain, our top priority. It is why we supported the decision by Transport Canada to close ports to cruise in spring 2020; we are happy to know that vaccination requirements and testing are in place for the return of ships to Victoria. When ships arrive, every effort will have been made to mitigate COVID-19 exposure for crew, passengers, and the destinations they visit. 

Now is the time to celebrate with our community and partners. The return of cruise is the result of hard work, advocacy, and the championing of an industry that provides a benefit to Greater Victoria. 

In a study completed in 2021 and based on 2019 numbers, cruise is worth $143 million annually to Greater Victoria and supports more than 800 jobs. Most of these jobs are with small businesses— the economic lifeblood of our region. Supporting locally-owned businesses is why southern Vancouver Island is a much-desired place to live. It is also part of what makes a stop in Victoria a unique proposition for cruise visitors. 

The return of cruise goes beyond the economic benefit and the support for small businesses. The opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the Lekwungen People through interpretive walking tours and placemaking throughout the harbour and downtown is an extraordinary part of the Alaskan itinerary. Cruise visits to Victoria create a sense of atmosphere and vibrancy to our downtown core, breathing life into the streetscape. Passengers experience a place we call home, often with a desire to return and stay longer. Crew spend time ashore and utilize public amenities such as the Dallas Road pathway, Beacon Hill Park, and the Legislature Precinct. This all creates a positive social and cultural impact for Greater Victoria. 

Critics have said that cruise isn’t welcome in the region. However, a study conducted by Insights West this past fall showed that close to 80% of residents welcome the industry’s return and 58% strongly agree that there is great benefit of cruise in Greater Victoria. I’ll respect the opposing point of view, but I stand with the data. 

However, we recognize that more work needs to be done to improve this part of the visitor economy. During the last two years, we worked in the background on projects such as shore power; improving wayfinding, walkability, and vehicle movement; deploying air monitoring stations; and improving community impact through virtual and in-person resident engagement. 

The hard work continues as we move major projects forward and explore the long-term sustainability of cruise in our region. This year, we will prioritize the work of examining how the industry interacts with the region, including downtown and the neighbourhood of James Bay. As our port operates 24/7, we want to develop a strategy that considers the needs of the industry and the community. 

Our Community Liaison Committee has already taken the first few steps with this work. This collection of 18 stakeholders and community partners that represent the region and neighbourhood have developed action plans to help guide us through 2022 and in the years to follow.  

For our not-for profit organization the return of cruise will mean that we will resume infrastructure improvements and capital projects. Our community amenities, such as the Ogden Point Breakwater, the Inner Harbour Causeway, and Ship Point rely on surplus generated from cruise tariffs and fees. 

Please join us as we welcome back this critical component of the regional visitor economy. 

Ian Robertson is the CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, a community-based, not-for-profit organization that is committed to the stewardship and sustainable growth of Victoria’s dynamic working harbour.