Round-trip cruises from Victoria set to begin in 2020

Victoria’s cruise ship industry will add a new wrinkle next season as — for the first time in decades — passengers will be able to begin and end regularly scheduled trips at Ogden Point.

In what will be its second season running cruises between Vancouver and Alaska, Cunard will offer four round-trip cruises leaving from Victoria during 2020.

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Josh Leibowitz, Cunard’s senior vice-president for North America, said the four sailings will be immersed into Cunard’s 10-sailing Alaska schedule, offering a maximum of 100 passengers the chance to start and end a cruise in Victoria.

“We are really excited about that,” he said.

The company wants to see where its new Alaska-cruise marketplace can be expanded, though there is also a slightly sentimental tinge to the move.

“Cunard was originally a Canadian brand. Samuel Cunard was Canadian, his parents were American, but they sided with the British in the Revolutionary War and had to move to Canada,” said Leibowitz.

While the brand now has a strong British connection, the two mix well and will suit the Victoria market, he added.

“One thing we understand is the Cunard brand resonates with British Columbians,” he said. “Coming to Victoria and serving people there feels like a continuation of the story.”

Lindsay Gaunt, director of cruise development for the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, said the scheduling wrinkle is a great opportunity for all stakeholders.

“It’s an opportunity for Cunard to test the market, and we have a great opportunity to build up our capacity at the cruise terminal and also within the city to accept these types of home-porting operations,” she said.

The harbour authority has set what it calls an aggressive goal of having a small or mid-sized cruise ship call Victoria home by 2020.

As a home port to one or two smaller cruise lines, Victoria could attract pre-and post-cruise tourism business and provide provisioning that could be worth $2 million per ship per excursion.

“With what we have right now, we can accommodate some of the smaller types of vessels [200-500-passenger ships]. If we wanted to have a larger vessel we would need to take a look at investing in infrastructure,” said Gaunt. “That is part of the long-term planning of the GVHA.”

The biggest hurdle to home-porting in Victoria is infrastructure — the city is short on hotel rooms and the cruise industry would require customs pre-clearance facilities at the port.

Cunard’s cruises leaving from Victoria next year are set for July 30, Aug. 10, Aug. 19 and Aug. 28. They will head to Vancouver and spend a day when most passengers will disembark and a new crop of passengers get on for the cruise to Alaska.

For next season, Cunard will use the same 965-foot Queen Elizabeth cruise ship it put into service on the route in 2019. This year marked the first time in more than 20 years that a Cunard-operated ship has been to Victoria.

The vessel carries up to 2,081 passengers and has 1,005 crew members.

The cruises, which will be one of the few to take in the inside passage in Alaska, ranging in duration between nine and 11 days.

Leibowitz expects demand to be strong. He expects Victoria residents, mid-Island residents and maybe British travellers who happen to be in Victoria or Vancouver to take advantage of it.

If next season goes well, the schedule could be expanded.

“We are committed if the market is committed,” Leibowitz said, adding the first season in Alaska has been very positive for the company.

He believes the Alaska cruise market is poised for serious growth, with more international brands offering unique experiences.

The Port of Seattle, the hub for Alaska cruises with 45 per cent of that market, believes the time is right to invest to make the most of the popularity of cruising in this region.

Two years ago, the port invested $30 million to revamp the existing Bell Street terminal.

On Friday, the port released a request for proposals to find a partner to build and operate a new $200-million cruise ship terminal.

The port has said the investment is necessary to hold onto its market share and meet future demand.

Gaunt said that kind of investment will have positive ripples throughout the region — because of the Jones Act, foreign vessels are prohibited from travelling directly between American points such as Seattle and Alaska.

It has led to Victoria becoming Canada’s busiest cruise-ship port. This year, is expected to be another record season, with 264 vessel visits bringing more than 700,000 passengers.

“If [Seattle] is able to have four ships turn around on any given day, they will be looking to be able to bring those ships most likely to Victoria or anywhere else on the Island,” Gaunt said.

The GVHA is considering feasibility studies to look into expanding its capacity.

Any new berth would have to be located away from the current facility, Gaunt said.

“I can say we know at the current cruise terminal at Ogden Point we are at capacity on certain days of the week,” she said.

“If there is going to be an additional berth built, it won’t be at Ogden Point.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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