First cruise ship heralds start of tourism season

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and Victoria’s tourism industry weren’t the only ones happy to see the Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship slip into port Tuesday morning, signalling the start of the 2019 cruise ship season.

Some passengers aboard the 1,041-foot vessel were just as happy to hit land after rough days on the seas.

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“We’ve had a couple of choppy days,” said Susan Robertson, who was making a first visit to Canada with husband Helston.

The couple from Leicester, England said they were caught out, having to pack clothes for cold weather after starting their vacation in Las Vegas.

“It’s definitely gotten chillier and chillier as we’ve travelled north,” said Helston, with a laugh.

Terry and Helen Henderson, who were also making their first trip to Canada, from Fife, Scotland, noted the pleasant Victoria morning weather was a nice change from the cold on the water.

“We were expecting better weather, but it just wasn’t there,” said Terry, adding the ship wasn’t able to make a stop at Monterey, California on the way from San Diego due to two-metre swells.

“The boat is great, but we have definitely felt the change in temperature. That was a shock to the system,” he said, noting before the cruise they spent a few days in Las Vegas and a week in Hawaii.

The Hendersons are cruise veterans, though it was their first time on the west coast of North America.

Both were looking forward to taking a walking tour of downtown Victoria, which they had heard was beautiful.

The Robertsons, who admitted to being “not the greatest travellers,” said it was nice to be in Victoria where they would be visiting with family.

“Cruising is a great way to see a lot of different places in one trip, but in North America it’s a bit spaced out,” said Susan, noting she was more used to the Mediterranean where stops come more frequently.

As for what they were likely to do until the ship’s departure at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Susan said they were apt to do the usual tourist things.

“The family will have plans for us and you do the touristy stuff,” she said. “You don’t really have time to get off the beaten track, so you just go for the tourist bit — it’s a good way of doing things.”

That’s a big part of the Victoria cruise ship business, said Dave Cowen, chief executive of Butchart Gardens.

“Broadly, in Victoria, short port calls are a great first introduction to the city,” Cowen said. The quick stops often lead to people wanting to come back and staying a few nights, which then fills hotels and restaurants.

Cowen said cruise passengers are used to making “strategic choices” when they have only a short period in a city, which is why terminal staff have worked to make getting off a ship as efficient as possible and the buses, pedicabs and taxis are ready to take people anywhere they like.

The Celebrity Eclipse, which can carry more than 2,800 people, was on a repositioning cruise that started in San Diego, spent Monday night in Seattle and will eventually be home-ported in Vancouver for the Alaska cruise season.

The Eclipse was on its first visit to Victoria.

Cowen and GVHA chief executive Ian Robertson participated in a small on-board ceremony with the crew of the vessel to mark the first visit.

Robertson said the ship’s visit was a bit of a “soft opening” for the season.

“It gives us a chance to make sure everything is working properly, that our signage is working efficiently and now we have a couple of weeks before we start the full season,” he said.

“It lets us see what is and what’s not working.”

It all seemed to be going to plan Tuesday with streams of passengers clutching walking maps heading toward downtown, while dozens of others climbed into coaches bound for places such as Butchart Gardens.

It’s a scene that will play out 263 more times this year as Victoria anticipates a record cruise ship season.

Victoria is Canada’s busiest cruise-ship port, and expects a 264 ship arrivals and more than 700,000 cruise passengers to arrive in Victoria through Ogden Point between April and October.

“We should be very excited about [the start]. We have bigger ships in this year with more passengers,” said hospitality industry consultant Frank Bourree. “[Cruise passengers] do spend a lot of money.”

Bourree said Butchart, the Royal B.C. Museum and downtown retailers tend to reap the most benefit.

Citing a 2016 economic impact study, the GVHA’s Robertson estimates the industry contributes as much as $175 million to the local economy annually and employs 800 direct and indirect jobs.

“This is a big deal,” said Cowen. “Once we get rolling, we are a very important part of that trip to Alaska.”

“It’s good because it’s business that happens early in the spring and in the summer at off-peak times,” he said.

“It also gives our staff some busy periods now to warm up for the summer.”

Cowen said it can also “even out some of the valleys” the tourism industry faces in years when high gas prices may affect some visitors, and there is softness detected in some markets such as Australia.

“In tourism, you never count your chickens,” he said.

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