On Sunday, May 11, 2022, the Pearl Mist will arrive in the Port of Saint John, officially ending a two-year dry spell for the city's cruise ship season and the massive economic boost it provides.
But it won't be business as usual.
Much has changed since cruise ship season was officially cancelled because of the pandemic, and the city's trade and tourism leaders are preparing for a new normal that nobody fully understands yet.
Andrew Dixon, senior vice-president of trade and business development with Port Saint John, says he's "elated" that cruises are returning to the fourth-busiest cruise port in Canada , but concedes there are uncharted waters to be navigated in the months ahead.
"We'll be having a lot of discussions with cruise executives to to make sure that we've got as solid a 2022 season as we expect," Dixon said in an interview with Information Morning Saint John.
"Right now we have a schedule of 70 calls, which in a pre-pandemic year would mean 180,000 passengers," he said.
But "the real wild card" is what limits will be placed on capacity," Dixon said.
"Will they be 75 per cent, 85 per cent, 90 per cent full? That's yet to be determined."
Vaccination high bar
As well, Dixon said, there is some unevenness in terms of what level of vaccination cruise ships are requiring of their passengers, although most have set a high bar.
"That depends on the cruise line," he said. "The Centers for Disease Control has some prescriptive rules that must be followed, but in most cases, the lines are either requiring … 95 per cent vaccination on passengers and 98 per cent on crew, or there are some lines that have opted for 100 per cent vaccination."
Port authorities are keenly aware of the concerns around safety, and are keeping a close eye on developments around the world as cruises restart in places like Europe and parts of Asia.
Dixon said the long runway to May 2022 will be an invaluable advantage, giving them nine and a half months to figure out where the hiccups are — and then cure them.
The ships that are sailing now are "figuring out the operational program, they're getting experience," said Dixon, who is also chair of the National Cruise Committee of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities.
That committee has been monitoring cruises already underway and developing a package of safety protocols for Canada's cruise ports.
"We presented that to Transport Canada, [with] the learnings of everything that's taking place in Europe and the expertise of all the operational people across the country," he said.
"We want everybody comfortable and understanding exactly what's going to take place, and we feel very confident that by that time, we're going to have the appropriate protocols ratcheted down."
N.B.'s handling of COVID a 'marketable' advantage
Getting those safety measures nailed down will be crucial to the rebuilding of the vital cruise ship season.
Paulette Hicks, CEO of regional economic development agency Envision Saint John, said there has been "tremendous leadership" and discussions at every level around the safe return of cruises.
"Going 30 months without a cruise ship, we have certainly missed that vitality and that vibrance in the uptown core and throughout the region," Hicks said.
"So we want to ensure not only that we're welcoming them back, but that they have an excellent experience, so that they continue to return year after year, which is really critical."
With many other ports competing for those revived cruises, Hicks said, the province's skilful handling of the pandemic gives it a definite and "marketable" edge.
"One of the advantages in particular for New Brunswick is that we have fared very well through COVID, and I think that has a value proposition all on its own," she said.
"Everything that we've done in this province has been very strategic. But there has also been a safety-first approach to this, and I think that has served us well."