Will cruises to Canada happen in time for the 2022 Canada and New England and Alaska cruise seasons? With just months to go before the first cruise ship arrives in Canadian waters, the stakes are high -- but so is optimism around what could be a banner year for Canadian ports.
Cruise Critic recently hit the streets of Victoria, British Columbia to see what local officials there had to say about the upcoming Alaska and Canada cruise seasons.
Officials in Victoria have Wednesday, April 6, 2022, circled in bold red marker on their calendars. What would otherwise be a random midweek day is the most hotly anticipated date of the year -- the arrival of the first cruise ship in a Canadian port of call since October 2019.
Caribbean Princess arrives in Victoria on April 6, 2022, followed closely by Koningsdam on April 9, and Viking Orion on April 16, 2022. The season runs right through until November 3 - a banner year by any measure, and a potentially triumphant comeback for the little port that could.
Twenty-nine long months will have passed without a single cruise ship in Canada; the result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to curb it spread. But even as cruises restarted around the world last year, Canadian ports like Victoria found themselves shut out.
Transport Canada banned all foreign cruise activities from Canadian ports of call, initially until the end of February 2022, in a move that was deeply shocking to industry observers. To make matters worse, federal and provincial governments greatly underestimated the resolve of Alaskans, who successfully repealed the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act -- if only for a year -- allowing cruises to restart from Seattle and bypass Canada altogether.
Victoria -- the charming capital of British Columbia that is home to just over 85,000 residents -- has found itself in the driver's seat when it comes to cruise in Canada. A total of 350 ships are scheduled to call here in 2022, the most in the history of the city.
And unlike its larger popular turnaround counterpart across the Strait of Georgia -- Vancouver -- Victoria does not have a massive cargo seaport operation to generate revenue when cruise isn't around. And that has allowed the Port to more freely advocate for the return of cruise to Canadian waters over, say, the more famous Port of Vancouver.
"We are in a unique position to perhaps be more vocal because we're not a part of the Canadian Port Authority model," Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) CEO Ian Robertson told Cruise Critic. "We're not under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada. My board gave me fair and free license to speak candidly and professionally in how we felt."
"We were one of the first to say we supported the decision taken by Transport Canada to close the ports," said Robertson. "We understood that. But I am also confident that those same decision makers will set the guidelines for us to follow and reopen.
"That's what we're all waiting on -- for us to see what the testing requirements will be for entry into Canada" via cruise ship.
"I hope they will follow the model that the CDC has developed," said Robertson. "I'm involved in weekly calls with Transport Canada and PHAC (the Public Health Agency of Canada), and I know they've been talking to the CDC."
While port authorities wait for the official go-ahead from Transport Canada, improvements are being made throughout the city. Government Street -- the city's main shopping thoroughfare -- is primarily now pedestrian-only for the first time. The city's famous flower decorations are poised to bloom around the inner harbour. And businesses and operators are beginning to hire staff for the upcoming season.
"Operationally, we're planning for 100 percent" of the season to go ahead, said Robertson. "It's easier for us to stand down than it is for us to build up. But in terms of where passenger numbers will be, we think it will be around 75 percent of total capacity."
Anna Poustie heads up the Victoria Cruise Ship Industry Alliance -- a group of industry leaders, retail businesses and tour operators throughout the Greater Victoria area, and says confidence is growing among all stakeholders that the 2022 cruise season in Canada will go ahead as planned.
"Transport Canada and the federal government and the provincial government really want to see this season go through," Poustie told Cruise Critic. "They've really taken the time to try to understand how our industry functions, what protocols work, and how to work with us on that.
"It's been a fantastic breath of fresh air. We can relax. We know they understand."
The GVHA and the Victoria Cruise Ship Industry Alliance have worked diligently for two years to change the conversation around cruise in Canada, particularly after Alaska sought -- and received -- a temporary exemption to the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act.
The result is a city that has roundly stood behind the cruise industry, from port authorities to hotels, tour operators, small businesses, and restaurants and bars. A recent survey conducted by the GVHA shows upwards of 70 percent of the city's population wants to have cruise ships back this year.
"This has really forced us to come together," Poustie said. "We've needed to keep the conversations open and really build honest relationships. I think that, and the position we're in when the season starts in April, will make us a lot stronger."
"We're not great here at telling our story," Poustie said of Victoria, which rates consistently high on passenger satisfaction surveys. It's reminded us that there is always room for improvement."
Every cruise line calling on Victoria offers passengers the chance to experience the grandeur of tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel, the city's most recognizable landmark and one of the former Canadian Pacific Railway hotels built at the turn of the last century.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Fairmont Empress closed its doors for three months. When the decision was made to open, British Columbia's most famous hotel pivoted: it started targeting local residents with special offers and incentives to come to a place that, prior to the pandemic, was the predominant domain of tourists. Afternoon tea was scaled back to weekends only, and the Victoria Film Festival helped fill in for the missing cruise and tour groups, renting out the property's magnificent ballroom for select screenings.
Despite working for a land-based hotel, Fairmont Empress Director of Public Relations Brigette Diem-Guy says everyone is looking forward to the cruise ships coming back to Victoria. And much like the cruise industry saw, according to a recent CLIA report, Diem-Guy noticed Victoria's most famous hotel undergo a shift in who is checking in in during the pandemic.
The hotel has seen, for the first time in recent memory, a colossal shift in demographic. Rather than wealthy retirees, the people flocking to stay at the Empress were working professionals between 25 and 35 years of age -- most of whom were predominantly booking rooms on the exclusive Fairmont Gold floor.
In the pre-pandemic world, the Empress was a beehive of activity, with tourists and guests mingling about in the property's public spaces, browsing its gift shops, and dining in its restaurants and lounges -- not to mention, the Empress's legendary afternoon tea service.
In late-January (always a quiet time in the city), the Fairmont Empress feels like an exclusive Victorian summer home. Still, a smattering of guests -- mostly locals -- held court in the Q Bar throughout our stay. And, like passengers on cruise ships, guests at the Empress are there to have a good time: one couple even bought the elaborate "Last Train to Paris" cocktail -- an exclusive libation served with gold-dusted macaroons and strawberries that comes with an astonishing $399 price tag.
"One guest ordered six the other weekend," quips Diem-Guy. "People want to have a good time. They're tired of being stuck at home."
While a question mark still exists around the big-ship lines, Canadian small ship operators already have the green-light to set sail again in 2022.
Victoria-based Maple Leaf Adventures specializes in small-ship cruises to Alaska and British Columbia. Co-owner Maureen Gordon met with Cruise Critic for a walk around the harbor, where its three ships -- historic sailing vessel Maple Leaf, restored tugboat Swell and modern catamaran Cascadia -- are all in winter layup.
Gordon told Cruise Critic approximately half of Maple Leaf Adventures' passengers hail from the United States or abroad, while the other half are predominantly Canadian. The line was just starting to see Americans showing up to cruise again in October 2021 and expects that to continue in 2022.
Maple Leaf also has a strong presence in Alaska in addition to its British Columbia homeports, offering cruises in June, July and August sailing from Petersburg, Ketchikan and Sitka. Its local Canadian cruises allowed it to operate a short season in 2021, after carrying no revenue passengers in 2020.
"We're preparing for a full season," Gordon told Cruise Critic. Even as a small-ship operator, she, too, concedes the return of big-scale cruise ships is good not just for the cruise lines, but for the entire tourism community in British Columbia.
It's no secret that British Columbia sets the tone for cruise across Canada during this pandemic age. Between calls on Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia sees the most cruise ships and passengers of any Canadian province or territory. But Eastern Canada benefits tremendously from cruise as well.
On the other side of the country, cruise contributes roughly $165 million to the local economy in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The most popular port in the Canadian Maritimes saw 179 cruise ships bring just over 323,000 passengers in 2019, and those numbers are expected to hold steady for the 2022 cruise season.
Halifax -- along with St. John, New Brunswick; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; St. John's, Newfoundland, and the Quebec ports of call of Montreal and Quebec City are among the most popular destinations for cruise ships calling on Eastern Canada. Ships typically come here between May and October as part of voyages sailing to Canada and New England, or as part of east or westbound transatlantic crossings.
New itineraries offered by lines like Viking on its new expedition ships are also beginning to offer Great Lakes cruises that start or end in Toronto and visit a number of Canadian ports of call, while Canadian small-ship operators like St. Lawrence Cruise Lines maintain a steady presence throughout Ontario and Quebec.
The million-dollar question that remains unanswered -- for now -- is whether people will be able to cruise from Canada this year. But based on what has been said, all signs point in the right direction: a return to cruise for Canadian ports, coast-to-coast, in 2022.
Some roadblocks remain before Caribbean Princess becomes the first ship to call on Canadian waters since 2019: Transport Canada and PHAC must issue their final requirements to cruise operators, which need to approve and implement them. Passengers need to be informed if those requirements differ from those the CDC has implemented.
Still, optimism is high that these last impediments will be lifted sooner rather than later -- even amongst locals.
"I was talking to a restauranteur, and she said she was excited about cruises coming back," Robertson concludes. "And I was kind of surprised, and I asked her why. And she said, 'I miss cruise because of the lack of ambiance and foot traffic and just energy that cruise brings to the city.'
"It's not about just the dollars and cents," Robertson said. "It's about the buzz and the energy of having a ship in port brings to our community."