The cruise ships are coming back.
Two years after COVID-19 closed the borders to big passenger vessels and left ports empty, Victoria’s Ogden Point will be the first to welcome a cruise ship into Canadian waters on April 6.
The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority released a draft schedule for Victoria’s 2022 cruise ship season on Tuesday, saying 350 scheduled ship calls will bring an estimated 759,000 passengers from April to October.
“This is the result of cruise lines requesting stops after many months, and it’s a sign of the pent-up demand out there for Alaska as a destination,” Ian Robertson, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, said Tuesday.
The anticipated 350 ship calls is higher than 2019’s record 257 visits, and next year’s passenger estimate is also higher than the record 709,042 passengers who arrived in 2019. The cruise industry’s passenger estimates are based on early demand, with ships at 50% to 75% capacity. Robertson said those numbers could fluctuate.
The cruise ships’ arrival is expected to be a boon for tourism and other businesses that have struggled through successive summers of border closures and travel restrictions amid the pandemic.
“I’m absorbing it and feeling great … this is really good news,” said Simone Kearney, owner of the Beaver Gift Shop, which set up in Mayfair shopping centre after the pandemic closed the port, marooning her shops. Kearney has been selling her tourist wares to locals while trying to stay afloat, but said revenues have slipped 90% without cruise passengers.
Matt McNeil, owner of the Bard and Banker and Irish Times pubs on Government Street, called the return of cruise ships “the best possible news.” “Everybody wins here, the little shops right up to Butchart Gardens,” said McNeil. “There’s the pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages that meet a wall of people waiting for them. That’s what people want when they are on holiday.”
The harbour authority said health and safety measures will be in place for the season, including mandatory proof of vaccination for passengers and crew, and COVID management plans and reporting protocols for all ships.
It said it has been working with Island Health and others to ensure the safe movement of passengers upon arrival at Ogden Point and in the community.
In 2022, Norwegian Encore, Majestic Princess, and Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas will make their inaugural calls to Victoria.
The first ship arriving at Ogden Point will be Caribbean Princess, at 9 a.m. on April 6.
Majestic Princess will be the first vessel to utilize the Pier B mooring dolphin extension that was completed in early 2020.
The schedule is being spread out, said Robertson, with some ship calls coming on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays next year — and fewer on the weekends.
While the cruise industry is resuming next year, its future here and in Vancouver remains at risk, said Robertson, as U.S. lawmakers consider squeezing B.C. out of the Alaska cruise run.
Alaska Congressman Don Young, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Utah Senator Mike Lee have all laid out plans to permanently exempt large cruise ships from the Passenger Vessel Services Act for cruises between the U.S. and Alaska.
The change would mean foreign-flagged cruise ships could travel directly between U.S. ports without touching a foreign country. That would devastate the cruise industry in Victoria, which reaps about $143 million annually from cruise visits. The industry is worth an estimated $2.7 billion annually to the province.
U.S. lawmakers said the Passenger Vessel Services Act, intended to protect American jobs and businesses, ended up putting Alaskan businesses at the mercy of the Canadian government when it closed its ports to cruise ships in 2020.
Robertson said federal and provincial leaders are lobbying the U.S. administration to resist the plan.
One challenge for Victoria businesses as the cruise season builds into spring and summer is finding enough staff in a tight job market.
“It will be great to see the business uptick and for the economy to open up, but the double-edge sword is staffing,” said Teri Hustins, who owns two Oscar & Libby’s gift stores in downtown Victoria. “That’s going to be a challenge … to find enough staff to take advantage of those feet on the street.”
David Roberts, general manager of Pacific Northwest Transportation Services, said the company owned by Western Stevadoring is busy rebuilding and fine-tuning many of its 45 buses that have been mothballed since the pandemic began.
The company provides shuttle services to and from Ogden Point and carries cruise passengers to Sidney, Butchart Gardens and other destinations.
Many drivers have been retained through government wage subsidies, but more drivers as well as ticket agents, safety personnel and office staff will have to be hired, said Roberts.
He said Pacific Northwest Transportation Services is paying premium wages, starting at $21.46 an hour and $30 for drivers.
Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said the federal government can play a key role in easing the staffing crunch by opening up immigration and providing more work visas to foreign students, who can work up to 20 hours per week while attending school.
“Employment was a challenge even before COVID, so for any business to operate seven days a week is a challenge. It’s like a blessing and a curse for some businesses.”