B.C.’s cruise season kicks off after 891-day pandemic absence

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Holland America Lines’ MV Koningsdam arrived in Vancouver Sunday signalling a start to rebuilding of Vancouver’s hard-hit tourism industry.

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Seattle residents Barbara and Larry Sabatino were about to step on a cruise ship two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the industry to a grinding halt on the West Coast.

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So they were happy, if a bit cautious, to be in Vancouver Sunday to board the Holland America Lines’ MV Koningsdam to take that long-awaited trip.

“We have an abundance of masks,” Barbara said of their preparations to remain cautious, but “at this point, we have to stop living in fear, be smart and live.”

The Koningsdam docked at Canada Place right at 7 a.m. as the first cruise ship to have passed under the Lions Gate Bridge in 891 days and anxious tourism officials gave the ship an ecstatic welcome, even with a sixth wave of COVID-19’s latest variant beginning to swell up in other countries.

Passengers disembark from The Koningsdam cruise ship at Canada Place in Vancouver on April 10, 2022.
Passengers disembark from The Koningsdam cruise ship at Canada Place in Vancouver on April 10, 2022. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

For tourism executive Royce Chwin, the arrival of cruise ships and an anticipated one million out-of-town tourists they are expected to bring, is a start to plugging the multi-billion-dollar hole the pandemic put into B.C.’s tourism economy.

“In Vancouver, (tourism) was worth $14 billion,” said Chwin, CEO of Destination Vancouver. “In the last couple of years, it was decimated to just under $5 billion annually.”

According to the Port of Vancouver, cruise tourism was worth $2.2 billion to the city in 2019.

“So, we’ve got significant ground to rebuild, and cruise is a really important part of that,” Chwin said.

Industry officials and federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra promised new layers of safety, including vaccination and testing requirements and protocols for isolating positive cases that arise.

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On ship, Holland America CEO Gus Antorcha said precautions include enhanced air filtration, UV lighting, crew monitoring, isolation cabins and full testing capabilities on board that have helped the company “operate safely,” since last July when it resumed Alaska cruises from Seattle.

“So we have a lot to manage an eventual positive case,” Antorcha said during a media event. “The positive cases exist on land and they exist on ships, in hotels, in schools. They’re everywhere.”

Alghabra acknowledged that it has been “a very frustrating, full-of-anxiety couple of years, and the anxieties are not gone yet, I know,” but promised government and the industry are working to keep it safe.

There have been hiccups. The Victoria Times Colonist reported that the Caribbean Princess cancelled scheduled stops in Victoria and Vancouver earlier this month, with the company citing the need for a last-minute stop at dry dock in Oregon. Passengers, however, said there were COVID cases aboard.

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Merchants in popular tourist spots such as Gastown, hotels and restaurants, however, are welcoming the influx of tourists after a two-year absence.

The Port estimates each ship’s call injects $3.17 million in spending into the local economy, and it expects 300 of those this season.

Passengers disembark from The Koningsdam cruise ship at Canada Place in Vancouver on April 10, 2022.
Passengers disembark from The Koningsdam cruise ship at Canada Place in Vancouver on April 10, 2022. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

“It was a very, very, happy feeling,” said Black Top taxi driver Harpreet Kauldhar, about his first trip in two years down into the pickup zone at the cruise terminal beneath Canada Place.

By 3 p.m., Kauldhar had already done four or five airport trips, when during COVID times he was used to waiting 45 minutes to pick up any fare. He guessed business was down by half during the pandemic.

So the cruise business is important because, “for us, when the airport is busy, the hotels are busy,” Kauldhar said. “Then restaurants are busy and it’s a very good opportunity to earn a living.”

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“I feel like I should be coming to work every day,” Kauldhar said. “These six months are very reliable.”

Provided the season unfolds smoothly.

The Koningsdam arrived in Vancouver from San Diego Sunday to disembark 1,200 passengers then take on another 1,200 for an 18-day excursion to Hawaii during the so-called shoulder season before the Alaska cruise run begins in May.

For Ruth and Robert Beninger, retirees from Victoria, the cruise was a chance to get back to normal.

“We’re ready to start life again, but we’ll still be careful,” said Robert.

“We’ve behaved so well for two years,” added Ruth, who believes that society has reached the point of the pandemic for people to start exercising personal responsibility.

“Come back in 18 days, my answer might be different, but right now, I feel okay,” Ruth said.

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