It’s nearly 26 degrees as Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), walks through the empty cruise ship terminal at the Breakwater District at Ogden Point. A lone seagull picks at a bug on the hot pavement.
Thousands of people should have disembarked off cruise ships here today, he says. The May 8 schedule included the Norwegian Bliss, carrying 4,250 passengers, the Norwegian Joy carrying 3,883, and the Eurodam, with 2,104 people aboard. But in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, the iconic harbour hasn’t seen a single cruise ship call this year.
The empty terminal is a scene in stark contrast to cruise ship seasons of the past, when more than 250 ships moored and 640,000 passengers passed through the Victoria harbour, spilling into downtown and filling the city’s shops, restaurants and landmarks, pumping upwards of $130 million into the local economy. In 2020, Victoria was expecting 300 ship calls and more than 800,000 passengers.
But midway through March, officials began cancelling cruises around the world in response to COVID-19, and Transport Canada put a pin in port calls carrying more than 500 people – which encompasses the majority of ships arriving in Victoria – until July 1. The GVHA cancelled cruise ships of all sizes, a decision costing the local economy roughly $65 million. That directive hasn’t been extended, but if the whole season is cancelled, it could cost the region over $130 million.
On March 27, the GVHA temporarily laid off 23 staff – 47 per cent of its organization – in an effort to stay afloat.
“That was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do as a CEO,” Robertson says.
But laying off staff wasn’t the only sacrifice the GVHA would make. Cruise ship passenger fees make up 70 per cent of the organization’s annual revenue, and without it, the authority will have to defer some capital projects and maintenance on popular sites such as the Inner Harbour Lower Causeway and Ogden Point Breakwater.
“The money we use from cruise [ships] goes towards funding community amenities that we own and operate,” Robertson explained. “These community amenities are some of the favourite places for Victorians to go to.”
Without the income for maintenance, Victorians might see closures at the Breakwater, or stairways cordoned off at the Lower Causeway. The Huron Street Wharf, located at the west end of Fisherman’s Wharf, will likely remain unusable to commercial fishers, and the Broughton Street pier – in need of structural repairs – may also close.
|The Ogden Point Breakwater was closed to the public on March 24 to help limit the spread of COVID-19. The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority plans to reopen the Victoria landmark on May 20 as the province begins to phase out a reopening plan. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
“We’re a not-for-profit organization,” Robertson says. “That’s why cruise [ships] play an important role – the money we earn from cruise [ships] goes towards sustaining the community amenities that people are able to enjoy.”
COVID-19’s impact on the 2020 cruise ship season is undeniable, but questions are arising about the entire industry’s future in a post-pandemic world.
Cruise ship horror stories began to surface in March – people posted to social media while trapped in their rooms aboard quarantined ships, sometimes carrying confirmed COVID-19 cases or even deaths. More than 200 Canadians were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, forced to anchor off the Northern California coast after officials confirmed COVID-19 cases among passengers. Canada’s top doctor Teresa Tam warned Canadians to avoid cruise ship travel due to the virus.
The future is uncertain, but Robertson is hopeful. Cruise ship travellers are a steadfast bunch, he says.
“The people who cruise are very, very loyal. Where this will have an impact is on the people who – they’ve never cruised before and they were thinking about taking a cruise – well, they’re probably not going to take a cruise now.”
Robertson says that from talking to several cruise lines he’s heard that the Alaska itinerary continues to be seen as a safe and secure travel location – good news for Victoria, where the majority of vessels are returning from the northern U.S. state.
Still, it’s hard, he says, to predict what a post-COVID-19 cruise ship industry looks like.
“We were going to welcome close to 850,000 passengers this year,” he says. “Will we get back to 850? I don’t know. I don’t know if it will ever be as big. But will it still continue to be a strong economic contributor? Absolutely.”
A priority for Robertson – as well as cruise ship industries – is keeping residents safe.
“It’s going to be a cautious reintroduction of cruise,” he says. “I’m well aware of the fact that a lot of residents are going to have concerns around cruise ships coming back. And my first and foremost responsibility and obligation is to do everything [we] can do to convince the public that it’s safe to welcome visitors back into their community.
“I know there’s always going to be some that will be concerned,” he added. “And I understand residents’ concerns and fears but I think we will be able to overcome that.”
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