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Tough times for Nova Scotia cruise industry

The Paul A. Desgagnes is shown docked at the Port of Sydney on Monday morning with the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion to it’s right. There will be plenty of space at the dock for tankers and ships like it this summer after the 2020 cruise ship season was postponed until Oct. 31. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST
The Paul A. Desgagnes is shown docked at the Port of Sydney on Monday morning with the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion to it’s right. There will be plenty of space at the dock for tankers and ships like it this summer after the 2020 cruise ship season was postponed until Oct. 31. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST
SYDNEY, N.S. —

Managing a record-breaking season has turned to planning for recovery in 2021 for the Nova Scotia cruise ship industry. 

The change in plans comes after the federal government extended its ban on cruise ships and passenger vessels in Canadian waters until Oct. 31, extending a previous ban initially put in place until July 31 as part of COVID-19 precautions. 

“It is a very stressful time at the port given that we have lost our major revenue driver, however, we have been fiscally prudent over the last several years so we are able to sustain port operations and ride it out until next season,” said Marlene Usher, CEO of the Port of Sydney. 

“We feel fortunate in that way because many of our cruise partners in retail or craft are being hit hard with a lot of money tied up in inventory. We are concerned for them as entrepreneurs that the loss of cruise will be catastrophic to their business.” 

Last year, 78 per cent of the Port of Sydney revenue was derived from the cruise ship industry.  

This year, 117 cruise ship visits to the harbour were scheduled, including 27 at a new berth that’s under construction, bringing 212,597 passengers and 89,351 crew members to the island. 

In Halifax, 203 vessel calls were on the schedule, bringing 350,000 guests and crew to the provincial capital, which would have made 2020 the busiest year for the Port of Halifax. 

While the port entered 2020 in a strong financial position, there’s no question the loss of the cruise ship side of it will have an impact. Lane Farguson, communications manager for the port, said the cruise ship industry is among three key sources of revenue for the port along with cargo and real estate. 

No layoffs are anticipated in Halifax despite a cancelled cruise season and those who work with that industry will be deployed in other areas.  

“Where there will be an impact is on the temporary workforce that we would normally bring in to assist with cruise, and on the many, many service providers and tourism operators who rely on those cruise guests as part of their tourism-based businesses,” said Ferguson.  

“It is a challenging time for them as it is for the entire economy.” 

Wharfage and berthage from tankers and other vessels, rental revenue and marina operations are other sources of revenue for the Port of Sydney.  

Usher noted that fuel for Cape Breton also comes through the port, meaning it must operate year-round.

A group of people enjoy the view of the Caribbean Princess during the 2019 cruise ship season. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST - Greg Mcneil
A group of people enjoy the view of the Caribbean Princess during the 2019 cruise ship season. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST - Greg Mcneil

In the absence of cruise ship traffic, Sydney port efforts will look for other ways to grow revenue, including continued work on a superyacht strategy.  

“There are thousands of vessels in the offshore which could potentially call on Sydney,” Usher stated. “With the second berth coming on stream we have more capacity to serve these vessels. The coast guard and fuel tankers are regular callers at the port. There is also the potential for some bulk shipping and project cargo.” 

The port has also partnered with Logistec to market the Port of Sydney for all types of vessels. 

Five full-time staff will remain employed at the Sydney port to operate, clean and maintain the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion after some layoffs in the spring.  

Staff also provide security service to vessels, ensure Transport Canada regulations are met, and operate the marina, among the duties. 

Usher said the cruise pavilion is still scheduled to open this week and some retail shops may decide to open both inside the pavilion and outside of it. 

Bruce Meloney operates The Kilted Moose, Cape Breton T-Shirt Company and Tops and Bottoms at the Port of Sydney and is not yet sure if he will open them or not. 

“If it is social distancing (that) is a problem, those are small stores so we don’t know how to deal with that,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we will have to get answers to before we make that decision.” 

Much of the business for those shops was derived from cruise ship traffic and 2020 was set to be a banner year. 

Uptown on Charlotte Street, he will open Rieker By The Shoe Tree on Tuesday after a short pandemic precautions related closure. That spot will miss cruise ship traffic, too. 

Michele Wilson
Michele Wilson

“I hate losing that business. We can survive without it but certainly, it was that gravy, the icing on the cake. We are going to miss that business but we are going to still get by.” 

Surviving without cruise ship traffic ‘won’t be easy,’ according to Michelle Wilson, executive director of the Sydney Downtown Development Association, but merchants have weathered many storms through the years. 

“The impact from the cruise industry varies from store-to-store downtown and some do a lot more with cruise passengers than others,” she said. “While the overall impact will create some challenges, they are not insurmountable.” 

In the absence of cruise ship patrons, Wilson reiterated a call for area residents to continue to buy local. 

In preparation for the next cruise season, Usher said weekly meetings with the Canada New England Cruise Association and major cruise lines have been taking place.  

“The expectation is that cruise visitation will return in 2021 but with heightened security and health protocols,” Usher said. 

“These measures will be on board the ships and also with individual ports. We will be working closely with Transport Canada to ensure compliance with all safety measures to allay any concerns by our staff, retailers and the general public.” 

Captain Allan Gray, president and CEO of the Halifax Port Authority, called the cancelled 2020 season disappointing but recognizes the importance of maintaining the health and well-being of all involved. 

“The most important thing we can do now is look ahead to 2021 and work with our partners across the industry to start the rebuilding process,” he said. 

An impact is also expected at the Port of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador where 33 cruise ships and 47,000 passengers were expected.

The postponed season will mean a loss of 6.6 per cent of planned operating revenue. No layoffs are planned. 

The Port of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador is a diverse service centre for container traffic, offshore energy supply and service, fishing, marine maintenance, as well as cruise activity, according to a statement issued by the port. 

Its revenue is generated based on a combination of marine-related activities and long-term lease agreements. 

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