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The cruise ship MS Anthem of the Seas, operated by Royal Caribbean International, arrives in Saint John, N.B., on Sept. 5, 2017. The cruise ship industry is worth billions to Canada’s tourism economy.Andrew Vaughan/CP

Tourism operators across the country are nervously hoping that Canadian ports will reopen to cruise ship passengers in time for the busy season to begin in July, while bracing for an extended downturn that they say could cost local economies many millions.

But throwing further uncertainty into Transport Canada’s decision to suspend the cruise season until July 1 in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 was Monday’s announcement that all foreign travellers except Americans are banned until further notice.

“We know it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lees Doley, owner-operator of Turn of the Century Trolleys in Saint John. “We honestly don’t know what this will all mean, because it’s changing every day. This will be a big blow to our income, but we’re trying not to go into panic mode yet.”

Her company has run trolley tours of Saint John’s historic uptown area for cruise ship passengers for nearly two decades. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, her city was expecting a banner year for cruise ships – 90 vessels carrying as many as 200,000 passengers, which would have set a new record.

She worries that if the ban is extended, or passengers are slow to return to cruises, many local tourism companies will cut staff. If the visitors don’t come back, Ms. Doley said she’s concerned it could mean she’d have to sell the four quarter horses she uses to pull trolleys through the city’s hilly streets.

The cruise ship industry is worth billions to Canada’s tourism economy. In British Columbia alone, it generated more than $2.2-billion in economic activity in 2016, and has grown every year since. The province’s two largest ports of call, Vancouver and Victoria, say the Transport Canada order will have a significant impact on the spring and early summer tourism season.

For Victoria, which had expected 800,000 cruise visitors this year, it represents the cancellation of 114 calls in port. That’s nearly 300,000 passengers and thousands of crew members who won’t be coming to town. The port of Vancouver had 120 ship visits scheduled, carrying 455,000 passengers, before July 1.

Cruise ships have become a billion-dollar industry in Quebec, according to the Cruise the St. Lawrence Association’s executive director René Trépanier. The ban will hit particularly hard in Montreal and Quebec City, where many passengers often begin or end their cruises and stay in local hotels, he said. Cruise traffic has also been a growing business for smaller ports such as Saguenay and Trois-Rivières, he said.

“I’m confident this is just a pause, a break,” Mr. Trépanier said. “The cruise industry has been so badly treated in the last month because of what’s happened. … But the industry has seen drop-offs before and come back very strongly.”

More than 95 per cent of cruise ship passengers are not Canadian, he added, so any further restrictions on foreign travelers could have a significant impact on future bookings. If the cruise ship ban is extended into the busier summer and fall seasons, the economic impact will be felt deeply in smaller and larger ports around his province, Mr. Trépanier said.

Many port cities say cruise revenues had been growing steadily since the 2007-2008 financial downturn. In Halifax, port authorities reported last season was their busiest year yet, with 323,709 guests and 179 vessels, with bigger ships coming into the city.

Tourism officials say they understand public health concerns must trump their business, but admit many operators are anxious about how long it may take for cruise ship traffic to bounce back. On the east coast, the bulk of cruise traffic comes in September and October, so there’s hope the industry could be getting back to normal by then.

“We believe this is justified, but there are obviously a lot of questions and concerns about when the recovery occurs, and what it looks like,” said Ross Jefferson, president and chief executive officer of Discover Halifax. “We’re hoping to see a change in the progression of the disease, and we’re hoping to see that come in time for the warmer months.”

The shutdown could have a silver lining, he added, if it gives cruise ship companies time to retrofit their vessels to reduce their environmental impact and win over more travelers once the industry rebounds.

Cruise ship traffic brought an estimated $537-million in tourism spending to Atlantic Canada last year, according to Cruise Atlantic Canada, the marketing board for the region. Until this season, it had been growing year over year, with passenger numbers jumping 22 per cent between 2018 and 2019.

“The cruise industry is very resilient, and hopefully it and other industries will learn how to manage the effects of COVID-19,” said Jeff Stevens, the association’s executive director. “The uncertainty that exists, that exists for every industry. What’s going to happen when things start to improve, I don’t think anyone knows that right now.”

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