Preparing for a cruise season that might not come

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority is preparing for a 2021 Alaska cruise ship season even as vessel visits are being cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It’s easier to stand down than it is to step up,” Harbour Authority chief executive Ian Robertson said Thursday.

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That’s why Harbour Authority officials are meeting with Ogden Point Terminal manager Western Stevedoring to plan for a season despite unanswered questions about whether cruises lines can operate and if borders will remain closed.

As of last week, 312 ship calls to Ogden Point were on the cruise calendar for this year, from April to October. Bookings have since dropped to 287 and Robertson is bracing for more.

This week, Norwegian Cruise Lines cancelled some early calls. On Thursday, Royal Caribbean decided not to send one of its vessels to Alaska this year, Robertson said. That ship would have made 22 visits to Victoria.

Robertson said he is still optimistic Victoria will see some type of cruise season, “but not nearly to the degree that is on the schedule right now.”

The sector is credited with boosting Victoria’s economy by delivering passengers and crews who shop here. In 2019, the cruise-ship industry generated an estimated 800 jobs and injected an estimated $130 million into the local economy. But the industry has been largely berthed since coronavirus outbreaks on ships early in the pandemic last year.

Last fall, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued requirements for cruise operators seeking a conditional sailing order. To receive approval to operate with passengers, cruise lines are required to implement COVID-19 testing and other health and safety protocols. An operator would have to start with test sailings, where its effectiveness in complying with conditions would be evaluated.

Canadian ports and borders have been ordered to stay closed until late February, but Robertson anticipates those bans will be extended. He said the Harbour Authority supports the resumption of cruises, but only when it is safe to do so. “That decision is in the hands of Transport Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, so we will follow their lead.”

The Harbour Authority is looking for a tenant to sublet its head office at 1019 Wharf St. With many staff working from home, the 5,271-square-foot space is not needed, Robertson said. If it can find a tenant, it will look for a smaller space, he said.

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