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John Campbell at his restaurant and gift shop The Sou'Wester in Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia on April 21.The Globe and Mail

The tourism industry in Atlantic Canada has waited more than two years for this day to arrive.

On Friday, the Viking Octantis is scheduled to arrive in Charlottetown carrying up to 378 guests, kicking off the first cruise ship season in Atlantic Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“The cruise industry has an impact far and wide,” said Mike Cochrane, chief executive officer of Port Charlottetown. The industry injected an estimated $42.2-million into the island’s economy in 2019, he said.

For some port operators, 2019 was one of the best cruise seasons on record. In Halifax and the surrounding areas, the season brought an estimated $166-million into the region, according to Lane Farguson, a spokesperson for the Port of Halifax.

The pandemic put an end to all that when Transport Canada banned ships that can carry more than 100 passengers from Canadian waters, effectively shutting down the cruise ship business.

Now, after the ban was lifted late last year, the sector is gearing up for its first season in three years, and businesses that rely on tourism in the ports and their surrounding regions are hoping revenue will rebound after being sideswiped by the pandemic.

Traffic won’t immediately return to 2019′s level this year. Halifax will be visited by the most ships in the region’s major ports during the season that runs from late April to the fall. The city is expecting 151 ships this year, compared with 192 in 2019, Mr. Farguson added.

“So that’s restarting in a fairly good position,” Mr. Farguson said, although he is unable to say if all of those ships will be filled to capacity.

Cruise ships return to Canadian ports for the first time since 2019

The return of cruise passengers will help revive business for tour operators, who transport passengers from the ships to different attractions.

“It represents almost 60 per cent of the company’s revenue,” said Dennis Campbell, the chief executive officer of Ambassatours Gray Line, a Halifax-based tour operator offering excursions across Atlantic Canada. Without cruises, his company’s revenue fell from $20-million in 2019 to a few hundred thousand in 2020, ”which was obviously devastating,” he said.

Jeff Babineau’s business was similarly decimated by the loss of the cruise industry and travel in general.

“The cruise ship industry is a very important one in the province, especially the Halifax region, and its loss was deeply felt, you can be sure of that,” said Mr. Babineau, who is the owner and operator of Anchor Tours, which provides tours in and around Halifax.

He’s optimistic about this season, with more bookings in April so far than he had in April, 2019, he said.

John Campbell (no relation to Dennis Campbell), the second-generation owner of the Sou’Wester Gift & Restaurant Co. overlooking the famous Nova Scotia lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, said the return of cruises is key because it extends their busy summer season into the fall, as ships continue to dock in Halifax until November.

Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant had only experienced one year without a profit in 53 years of operation. Now it has had three years.

“I’m looking forward to a good year. We need one,” Mr. Campbell said.

Some ships also dock in rural communities throughout Atlantic Canada, in what are called niche ports. The niche port of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, N.S., was supposed to celebrate the industry’s return a day before Charlottetown. But the Viking Octantis was delayed by weather and skipped it.

“We’re very disappointed, only because the community was so prepared,” said Marlene Usher, CEO of the Port of Sydney, which oversees the niche port of Louisbourg.

A local community group, the Louisbourg Cruise Ship Committee, had prepared to celebrate the industry’s return. They planned to serve coffee and tea, ensured the village’s library and shops would be open and prepared a market exhibiting local wares, Ms. Usher said.

The committee was founded in 2018 and its goal is to showcase what the village of Louisbourg has to offer beyond the 18th-century French fortress that makes it a destination, says committee member Jenna Lahey. Ms. Lahey said the pandemic provided them with extra motivation.

“We know how devastating it was to lose out on those visitors in 2020 and 2021,” said Ms. Lahey, who is also the CEO of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce. “So it’s important now more than ever that we showcase exactly what we have here.”

The lack of a cruise season was also devastating for the Port of Sydney, according to Ms. Usher. Unlike the Port of Halifax, which earns the majority of its revenue from cargo shipping, cruises make up 60 to 70 per cent of the Port of Sydney’s revenue. This meant cutting staff and services to keep the port running through the pandemic.

The port has also been waiting to use a second cruise ship berth that was completed in 2019. The $20-million berth was funded equally by all three levels of government and took nearly a decade of lobbying to build. Because of the pandemic, it has yet to be used by a cruise ship, but two are expected to dock on Aug. 24.

“Our first cruise double-ship day will be a celebration,” Ms. Usher said.

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