Preparations are under way at Victoria’s cruise ship terminal for the start of this year’s cruising season on the West Coast, with extra hand sanitizing stations being installed amid concerns about COVID-19. But Canadian port authorities, cruise lines and the hospitality sector are waiting to find out if the season will begin at all.
Health officials, including Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, are urging Canadians to avoid all cruise ship travel because of COVID-19, but Transport Canada has not yet decided if the tens of thousands of visitors due in the month of April alone will be welcomed.
Cruise ship visits to Canadian ports generate more than $3-billion annually for the economy. For Victoria, 800,000 passengers are expected to visit this year, starting on April 3 with the ill-fated Grand Princess.
The Grand Princess, with 230 Canadians on board, docked in Oakland, Calif., on Monday after being held off the coast for five days because at least 21 people on board tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“As cruise ships represent a high-risk environment for viral transmission of COVID-19, Transport Canada is working with key partners to be ready to respond to cases of COVID-19 in Canada,” Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said. Ms. Liu said the department is still looking at all available options.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has advised the federal department to delay the arrival of cruise ships in B.C. ports.
“It is my belief that we should be delaying our cruise season until we are in a safer place internationally," she told reporters. “We know that this will impact businesses here in Victoria; the tourist industry is being hard-hit by this. But my primary concern is the health and safety in B.C., and I have grave concerns about cruises right now.”
Donna Spalding, spokeswoman for Cruise Lines International Association’s northwest and Canadian region, said her industry is offering Transport Canada a plan to increase screening processes for passengers and crew.
The association maintains that any action to restrict cruising is unwarranted, and Ms. Spalding said she is more concerned about taking public transit than getting on a cruise ship.
But she acknowledged the warnings from health officials are going to have an impact on the industry, even if the ports are not closed. “Things are very fluid,” she said. “The safety and security of their passengers is first and foremost for our member lines.”
Ian Robertson, chief executive officer of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, said Transport Canada is expected to brief port authorities across the country on Wednesday, and he hopes to hear then whether the ports will be open to cruise ships next month.
In the meantime, he said, he is preparing for the start of the season.
“I’ve directed our terminal operator to ensure that there are additional portable hand washing and hand sanitation stations in place, and that we step up the cleaning of all hard surfaces around the terminal,” he said.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said a delay would have an impact on the local economy, but she is putting her trust in health officials to make the right decision. “The most important thing for a strong economy is to have healthy, healthy citizens and healthy workers," she said in an interview.
"If that means cruise ships not coming for us for a period of time, to ensure the health and well-being of our residents and our business owners and their employees, then I think everyone would agree that that’s probably an okay trade-off.”
Victoria and Vancouver are top cruise ship destinations in Canada, and a hospitality sector spokesman said a delay – or worse, cancellation – of the cruise ship season would be bad news.
“A lot of this is going to depend on Transport Canada, I hope we don’t have an over-reaction,” said Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association. If the ports are temporarily closed to cruise ships, he said, he hopes locals will make up the difference.
“What we need to do here, frankly, is rally the locals to get out. ... We shouldn’t be at home, hiding.”
With a report from Andrea Woo in Vancouver