This Saturday, three large cruise ships will converge at Canada Place cruise ship terminal bringing some 14,000 passengers (or guests, as we call them) here in a single day to start or finish their cruise vacation. Unfortunately, for guests travelling on three big ship-days like this Saturday, their experience in this beautiful port city may be tarnished by long lines and wait times, and congestion and confusion trying to get in or out of Canada Place.
The fact is, Canada Place was never designed to handle multiple ships of the size that are commonplace today, and will be even bigger in the future. It’s hard to imagine that the cruise ship facility that opened under the iconic white sails of Canada Place back in 1986 could handle up to five ships. And together with the two-berth Ballantyne facility east of downtown, Vancouver could accommodate up to seven ships at once. But that was over 30 years ago and a completely different era when the average cruise ship carried far fewer guests and offered very few of the array of amenities that one would see on a vessel calling Vancouver today.
This season, Vancouver will welcome 840,000 cruise passengers — nearly three times as many as it did during Expo 86. And today, all of them are being funneled through a single terminal — the now three-berth Canada Place — as the Port of Vancouver recently closed the Ballantyne cruise facility for good. As the industry grows and ships get bigger, Canada Place will be put under the stress of more days like this Saturday. The result, we fear, will be a further decline in guest satisfaction and a growing stain on Vancouver’s international tourism reputation.
Cruising is big business for Vancouver and B.C. In 2016, the cruise lines, their guests and crew spent nearly $1 billion directly in B.C., employing local residents by the thousands — from longshore workers to taxi drivers to entertainers to summer students – and everything in between. All in, the total economic impact of the cruise industry in B.C. now totals $2.2 billion per year.
The cruise industry worldwide is growing. Passenger volumes are increasing by about seven per cent per year and global cruise ship capacity is set to expand by 40 per cent over the next decade. B.C. is well positioned to share in that growth and the resulting economic benefits. But the risk is, as cruise lines and their guests feel the growing strain of inadequate capacity in Vancouver, they will look for alternatives. Increasingly, Seattle is the alternative — a port that is growing its cruise business rapidly and has plans to double the economic benefits cruising brings to Washington State in the next decade. For every ship that foregoes Vancouver as a home port call — or is moved to another market — $3 million in direct local economic activity goes with it.
Like the cruise industry, convention business delivers significant benefits to the B.C. economy. Conventions at the Vancouver Convention Centre alone generate an estimated $300 million a year in economic activity. Unlike the cruise industry, however, when it became apparent that convention space in Vancouver was inadequate, new capacity was built. For the cruise industry, capacity in Vancouver has been reduced.
The cruise industry must plan years into the future. If Vancouver is to maintain its place on the Alaska cruise itinerary and take advantage of global growth, it needs to do the same. The Port’s current plans, focused on optimizing cruise business at Canada Place, will not adequately address current constraints or future opportunities. It’s time for a new plan. The cruise industry is looking to our partners at the Port, in the tourism sector and in government to work with us on a new plan that responds to evolving industry trends — and ensures the city, the region and the province can continue to share in the benefits of this popular and growing industry.
Greg Wirtz is president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, North West and Canada.