St. John's prepares for cruise ship season, but an industry expert is wary of the economic impact

·4 min read
 A cruise ship is anchored in St. John's harbour in 2019. After a two-year hiatus, 30 cruise ships will return to the city in 2022. (Submitted by Alick Tsui  - image credit)
A cruise ship is anchored in St. John's harbour in 2019. After a two-year hiatus, 30 cruise ships will return to the city in 2022. (Submitted by Alick Tsui - image credit)
Submitted by Alick Tsui
Submitted by Alick Tsui

After a two-year hiatus, St. John's hopes to welcome its first cruise ship of the season on June 12, which is exciting news for Brendan Quinlan, owner of Legend Tours in downtown St. John's.

Quinlan offers tours tailored to cruise ship passengers but the pandemic forced him to put that side of the business on hold.

"Of course, we're looking forward to this season," Quinlan told CBC News.

"It seems every day we're getting reservations coming in."

His excitement is shared by Debbie Hanlon, city councillor and lead of the St. John's Cruise Committee.

"We need the cruise industry to come back," said Hanlon.

"The hospitality industry has gone through tremendous trade changes and struggles with COVID … so, this will help to recover it."

The city hopes to welcome 30 cruise ships with a total of about 37,000 passengers, excluding crew, during the 2022 season which runs until mid October.

According to the city, it spends about $62,000 annually on the industry and in return it generated $10 million in spending by passengers, crew members and cruise lines for the province in 2019.

But, cruise industry expert Ross Klein is wary of the numbers.

"They're not from anybody dealing with Newfoundland," he said.

"Based on research we've done, my guess is that maybe there's an average spending of about $40 to $50 per passenger on a good day."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

For Hanlon, that's sufficient.

"If you get 40,000 people down spending $40 a day, we're doing okay," she said.

Breaking down $10 million into the different sectors it actually benefits is difficult, Hanlon added.

But, she says, the industry positively impacts stores, restaurants and tour operators, as well as the port authority itself.

"That many people into your province and into your city would have an economic impact. It just makes common sense," she said.

Hanlon stresses that the arrival of a cruise ship also brings business from locals who come to the downtown core to see the ships.

Quinlan agrees that there is value for his business in having cruise ships arrive in St. John's, adding that this side of the business makes up the majority of his revenue.

"Last year, maybe 15 per cent of revenue came from the tour side which, you know, was okay but is not a whole lot," he said.

"This year, we're expecting to go back to at least pre-pandemic sales and probably even surpass that."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Elsewhere in the country, the cruise season has already started — and it's seeing COVID-19 cases.

The Seven Seas Navigator arrived in Saint John, N.B., with one positive crew member last Thursday.

A Princess Cruises ship in the U.S. had several outbreaks in recent months.

But that's a risk St. John's is prepared for, said Melissa Williams, harbour master with the St. John's Port Authority.

Four days before a vessel enters Canadian water, she said, it has to disclose symptomatic and positive cases.

The threat of COVID-19 is evaluated based on four categories of which the highest — the red level — indicates that 0.3 per cent or more of the people onboard are symptomatic or positive.

"Then Transport Canada would initiate a marine coordination call and on that line, for St. John's, would be the Port Authority, provincial health, the pilots, Transport Canada, anybody that was associated with getting this vessel into port safely. And the coordination call … will decide, can they bring the vessel in?" said Williams.

Courtesy Ross Klein
Courtesy Ross Klein

Should cruise ships be diverted, the impact would be "devastating" for local businesses that have prepared for cruise ship arrivals, said Klein.

"The restaurants get extra food, they bring in extra staff, they bring in extra buses. ... They bring on extra tour guides to provide them and they find out an hour before they're supposed to have passengers come up, they're not going to be here," he said.

Hanlon agrees that cancellations would have an impact but says the exact scope would have to be determined later in the season.

She says there is not much the city can do to mitigate the risk of last-minute cancellations, whether it's due to COVID or the weather.

Quinlan knows that cancellations due to the weather are relatively common. For now, he is not too concerned about COVID-19 impacting the season.

"Who knows? You know, we're just hoping that things would work out," said Quinlan.

"We remain optimistic."

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