Greater Victoria Harbour Authority demands Ottawa act on cruise ship ban

Saying the future of the cruise ship industry in B.C. could be in jeopardy, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority has called on the federal government to immediately declare it will be ready to welcome cruise ships to Canadian waters next year.

Authority chief executive Ian Robertson has asked the federal government to announce its intention to rescind the order banning cruise ships in Canada until Feb. 28, 2022.

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“It’s critically important,” said Robertson, noting both the reputations of the country and B.C. have taken a hit with the cruise ship industry as a result of the ban. “It’s important we send a signal immediately that the order will be rescinded come the fall. It doesn’t change anything for 2021 but sends a signal we will welcome back the industry in 2022.”

Robertson said the industry is worth about $2.7 billion to the province and more than $130 million in Victoria alone.

The importance of immediate action was underscored this week when Utah Senator Mike Lee tabled bills in the U.S. Senate to permanently change U.S. law to allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to travel directly between U.S. ports without touching a foreign country. That means Alaska cruises could completely bypass Victoria and Vancouver.

This year, new U.S. legislation, introduced by Alaska lawmakers, was approved that temporarily allows cruise ships to bypass Canadian ports on the way to Alaska for this cruise season. That regulation will be dropped when Canada opens its borders to cruise ships.

But Robertson said if signals that the ban will be dropped are not sent soon there is a significant risk to Victoria’s cruise industry.

“At the end of the day, we know passengers book the journey because it’s Alaska and for a lot of them Victoria is a happy surprise,” he said, adding Victoria has worked hard to establish itself as a desirable port of call.

Robertson said if the ships are able to bypass Canada, there is no guarantee they will return to Victoria, even though the city has become a highlight for many passengers.

“We can’t take for granted Victoria’s charm and beauty,” he said.

Premier John Horgan was playing the Beautiful B.C. card heavily Friday.

“This new overture by the junior senator from Utah is certainly a complicating factor to be sure, but not one that we could have predicted, and not one that I was aware of until late yesterday,” he said.

“We have good relationships to the south in Washington, Oregon, and California, and now emerging relationships with Alaska,” Horgan said, noting he had been speaking with Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski this week.

“I know the cruise ship sector very much values Victoria, Vancouver, Prince Rupert, as destinations for travellers around the world, and I’m confident (Tourism Minister) Melanie Mark is reaching out to those interests to make sure that they understand that B.C. stands ready to welcome the world once we can work out how best to open the borders to put COVID behind us.

“So I’m confident we’re in a good place. This is a new wrinkle, but people want to come to B.C. and we’re anxious to let them come.”

Horgan said the “machinations of U.S. politics” don’t change the draw for people to travel up B.C.’s coast and he doesn’t believe there’s anything the provincial government can do about decisions made in the U.S. Senate.

Horgan told reporters he doesn’t “regret not yelling louder at people who would not have been listening.”

“We’re in a global pandemic. The United States, on a good day, is difficult to a govern,” Horgan said Friday. “To suggest that, somehow, I could have thrown myself in front of this bus and stopped it is the height of hubris in my mind.”

Provincial Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said the province backs the harbour authority and that he has requested a meeting with the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.

“This is not what cruise ship travellers want: Americans and international tourists want to visit Canadian destinations, and it enriches the experience cruise operators can offer to their passengers,” Fleming said. “We want to ensure that the tourism industries in both Canada and the U.S. come back strong.”

Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria, said getting Ottawa to act is about certainty for the tourism industry, cruise business and the harbour authority.

“Cruise is really important, it introduces a lot of U.S. visitors to Victoria for the first time,” he said, noting their research shows many return for land-based vacations and spend nights in the city. “We think it’s a very important pillar in the overall mix.”

A harbour authority passenger survey in 2015 found more than 60 per cent of cruise passengers planned to return to Victoria.

“I understand there are some businesses that question the value of cruise, but I think that takes a narrow view,” said Robertson. “There is significant benefit and they do spend significant time in town.”

Robertson admitted there is little hard data on just how many did actually return to Victoria, but he said there is plenty of anecdotal evidence among business owners in the city.

Nursey said given the state of tourism, this is no time to be turning away an important slice of the market.

“Signals from our top political leaders mean a lot,” he said. “We are looking for some action from our federal leaders and some positive signals from our provincial leaders. If they choose not to send those signals there likely will be consequences.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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