Riding the waves

Illustration: Alexander MacAskill

As Halifax prepares to again welcome cruise ships, COVID continues to raise uncertainty, and concerns rise over the uneven benefits of the industry

It was cool and cloudy on Nov. 6, 2019, with rain falling and winds gusting. At Pier 22, the Oceania Cruises’s Riviera, a 1,250-passenger vessel on a 16-day cruise pulled away from shore. It was the last of 179 cruise ships to call on the Port of Halifax that year, and officials were optimistic about the following season, with more than 200 cruises booked.

We know what happened next.

Before COVID-19 had even been given a name, the disease was linked with cruise ships. Quarantined in Yokohama, the Diamond Princess became a floating symbol of contagion. On Feb. 20, 2020, passengers and crew represented half of all cases in the world outside China. Ultimately, 712 people on the Diamond Princess tested positive for the disease, and 13 of them died.

By mid-March, the cruise industry had essentially shut down, and the federal government banned cruise ships from calling on Canadian ports.

But now, we are getting ready to welcome cruises back for the 2022 tourist season.

“We’re anticipating the first vessels should arrive here in Halifax towards the end of April,” Halifax Port Authority communications manager Lane Farguson says in a recent interview. “But of course throughout this entire situation there have been so many unknowns, and Omicron is another one of those. A month ago, I would have been a lot more optimistic about the season ahead. But now we’re just like everybody else, waiting to see what happens.”

Speaking in October 2020, Halifax Port Authority CEO Allan Gray said he anticipated “a slow return for cruise,” and that the number of ships would take two to three years to reach 2019 levels. 

But that seems to have been unduly pessimistic. Farguson says that as of mid-January, the port had “in the neighbourhood of 160 calls” scheduled, mostly ships coming from Boston and New York.

That’s good news for Dennis Campbell. He’s the CEO of Ambassatours Gray Line and Murphy’s The Cable Wharf — businesses that rely heavily on cruise passengers, offering packages including bus excursions, harbour cruises, and winery tours. 

“We thought 2022 was going to be a recovery year,” Campbell says. “We are sort of looking at 2023 and hope it will be the recovery year now, but we still believe 2022 will be reasonably decent.”

Campbell says the company rode out the cruise shutdown in part by refinancing, making it “easier to survive in the long term.” He also says he is in “constant communications” with the cruise lines, and they’ve told him they expect to be operating at full capacity by May, but “that remains to be seen with the Omicron numbers.”

Bill McArthur is another business owner looking forward to the return of cruise tourists. He is co-founder and co-owner of Liquid Gold, a small local chain of shops selling gourmet oils and vinegars. In spring 2020, the company moved its Halifax shop from the Hydrostone to Lower Water Street. “We wanted to tap the cruise market more efficiently, and of course that’s been a bust from the get-go,” he says. Cruise customers would come into the Hydrostone location “in trickles,” he says, but the neighbourhood seemed to be “on the B-list when it came to cruise passengers.”

Liquid Gold has four locations around the Maritimes, so the company won’t live or die by the fate of its Lower Water Street store. McArthur says they had a “generally pretty strong” year, with Halifax being“notably weak” and that he looks forward to the return of cruise ships when they are no longer “floating Petri dishes.”

Maritime lawyer Jim Walker says Halifax should be “gravely concerned” about welcoming cruise ships back. Based in Miami, Walker runs a practice that exclusively sues cruise lines, primarily representing sick or injured crew members. He’s filed thousands of suits over the last 25 years and writes a blog called Cruise Law News, with the tagline “Everything cruise lines don’t want you to know.”

Walker says his sources who work on cruise ships “paint a very disturbing picture of the industry … It’s an industry that has a historical propensity to hide the ball, hide the truth, and to lie to government officials and the U.S. Coast Guard” about health and environmental practices. “I’ve been calling them plague ships, ships of pestilence and disease,” he adds.

In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly advised against cruise travel, even as it eased restrictions: “People should avoid traveling on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, regardless of vaccination status,” the CDC advisory read. “It is especially important that travellers who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, regardless of vaccination status.

The CDC website tracks outbreaks on cruise ships, using a colour-coded system. Of the more than 100 ships listed in January, only nine showed no cases of COVID-19 — and all of those were ships with no passengers aboard.

But Walker says the CDC reporting is too vague to be helpful. “The CDC does not disclose the number of positive crew members or guests infected,” he says. “It would seem to me the consumer needs sufficient information to decide whether they want to take their family on a cruise.”

Some ports do a good job of protecting their populations from infected passengers by refusing entry to vessels with more than a certain percentage of positive cases, Walker says. For instance, Panama won’t allow a vessel into port if more than one per cent of the passengers and crew have tested positive for COVID-19. Asked if Halifax has a similar requirement, Farguson says the Port will defer to the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

At the time of writing, the agency was, according to its website, “developing a comprehensive framework … focusing on the COVID-19 related health requirements that the cruise industry must abide by, supporting safe cruise activities in Canada.”

Cruise passengers generally “come in for a few hours and then go out,” says Wendi Dewey, who teaches in the business tourism and hospitality program at Nova Scotia Community College. “Some of them go on excursions outside the city and spend their money visiting our tourism sites, and others stay on the waterfront, explore our attractions and shops, and take tours of the harbour. And all those businesses benefit economically, and they really miss those passengers coming in.”

Develop Nova Scotia spokesperson Kelly Rose says between May and October 2020, foot traffic on the Halifax waterfront was down 56 per cent from the year before. The lack of cruises isn’t the only factor contributing to that drop, but Rose says the industry “provides a baseline of business that allows operators [on the waterfront] to stay open and also support other forms of travellers and the local market.”

“You’re a couple of cabins down, breathing the same air as dozens of people who are infected, and nobody on the ship is going to tell you,” says professor Ross Klein. Illustration: Alexander MacAskill 

Cruises were worth $165 million to the Halifax economy in 2019, according to Halifax Port Authority figures. 

Farguson says that takes into account not only the dollars passengers spend while onshore but also waste removal and provisioning: “Everything from refuelling and taking on new supplies, like Nova Scotian wine and lobster that they like to serve for that authentic experience.”

But Ross Klein doesn’t buy those numbers. A professor of social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland, he’s studied the cruise industry for over 20 years, and has written four books on its dark side. He co-authored a 2018 paper published in the journal Tourism in Marine Environments arguing that industry figures for 2016 inflated the value of cruise passenger spending in Halifax by 31.5 per cent. “The data from this study can begin to demonstrate how errors in measuring passenger spending are reflected in erroneous measures of economic impact,” the paper says.

In an interview, Klein scoffs at the stated benefit of cruise ships, calling their economic impact studies “smoke and mirrors” and “a quagmire of bullshit.” 

When a tourist buys an excursion to Peggys Cove on board, the cruise line marks it up substantially, but the full cost counts towards economic impact, he says. And as for provisioning? “I’ll bet you that local Nova Scotia wine is a big seller on that cruise ship … What are they paying you to take their garbage? Is it a fair amount? They dump their garbage, buy a couple of lobsters, and go on their happy way,” he says. “Everybody loves the cruise lines. They come in and say every passenger spends $100 per port of call, and the port goes: Wow! Let’s spend more money to attract more cruises!”

Campbell, of Ambassatours, says the markup cruise passengers pay for the company’s tours is substantial. “It varies by line. Many of the cruise companies mark up the excursions anywhere from 60 to 100 per cent. There are times when the cruise lines almost give the cruises away, and look at their profit centres as the onboard bars, casinos, and on-shore tours. That’s just the way it is.” But that also means they are not particularly encouraging passengers to spend money ashore.

Spend any amount of time looking into the world of cruises and you can start to feel like you’re dealing with parallel worlds. Campbell, who calls cruising “the most nimble part of the travel industry,” thinks it will “come back with a vengeance,” and adds, “The cruise lines have done a wonderful job to adjust and create new cleaning and sanitizing protocols. I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Klein, on the other hand, says when it comes to health and safety, the cruise industry “puts their head in the sand.”

As of mid-January, Walker said there was “just an unprecedented volume of people getting infected on cruise ships,” many of them crew. “You might not realize you’re a couple of cabins down, breathing the same air as dozens of people who are infected, and nobody on the ships is going to tell you that,” Walker says. 

Referring to a 2019 incident in which the U.S. government fined the Carnival Corporation US$40 million for illegally dumping oily wastewater into the Atlantic, he adds, “Nova Scotia is going to invite these corporate felons back? Good luck!”

Farguson says the port has heard concerns about the “different challenges that come with cruise” over the last few years, and that he understands “not everybody sees and feels the benefits of the industry.” 

Gray, the port CEO, has set up a Port Community Liaison Committee, “made up of different people who are independent of the Halifax Port Authority, but still have a vested interest in what happens in the harbour,” Farguson says. “And, you know, we have been hearing from that group that not everybody shares in the benefit that comes from cruise ships calling on Halifax.”

While McArthur says the Liquid Gold shop downtown has felt the absence of cruise passengers, he notes the neighbourhood is changing, becoming a food destination for locals, and that he expects traffic to rebound, with or without the ships. 

“The neighbourhood will continue to mature and become more consumer-friendly all the time,” he says. “As we go on, I think there will be less apprehension about store traffic and coming down with a serious disease. So we have great plans for that store over the coming years, and will continue to evolve consistent with the foodie nature of what we do.”

Rose, of Develop Nova Scotia, says even without cruises, “there was a very strong leisure travel rebound last fall (2021),” in Halifax, which “surpassed pre-pandemic levels.” And foot traffic on the waterfront for September and October increased 94 per cent over 2020 levels — bringing it to just 19 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

Dewey says some businesses see cruise passengers not as essential, but as a way to extend their season, since ships tend to call from spring to mid-fall. She says we’ll have to wait and see how much the pandemic changes travel, and whether people will prefer travelling in their own vehicles versus being “contained on an airplane or a boat.” But pandemic or no, she says there will always be people who “are avid cruisers and will cruise no matter what. They just want to get back on a boat.”

Farguson says he hopes “a new normal will emerge,” and that “cruise will be a part of that new normal. What we don’t know yet, though, is just what that is going to look like. Will passengers be able to leave the vessel and wander around the downtown on their self-guided tours like they did before? Or will there be some sort of a transition period, where they have to remain in a bubble, remain accounted for, and take those tours where they’re not able to wander off? Those are those type of things that we’re still working through.” 

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