Canada Place, Vancouver, and Celebrity Millennium
seen from the deck of Holland America’s Rotterdam in May.
Photo © 2010 Aaron Saunders 

The number of passengers who embarked on an Alaska or Pacific Coastal voyage from Vancouver, British Columbia this year are in – and they’re not good.

This year’s Vancouver passenger count was down to 575,000 from 898,473 for the same period last year.  The total economic impact in British Columbia of the reduced passenger count fell 26.3% to $1.2 billion from 1.6 billion in 2009.  Not since 2003 has there been a greater reduction in overall spending.

While the Port of Vancouver – now known as Port Metro Vancouver – initially lost some vessel traffic to Seattle when Norwegian Cruise Line first set up shop there in 1999, the de-facto home of the Inside Passage Alaska cruise continued to do remarkably well, even in the wake of 9/11.

In fact, the cruise industry in Vancouver was continuing to grow so rapidly that between 2001 and 2002, Canada Place was extended to enlarge the West and East berths to accommodate larger vessels, and created a third, North berth.  This arrangement could allow up to three large cruise ships to tie up at Canada Place at any given time, or four vessels if one was a smaller, expedition-style ship like the former Cruise West ships.

Even with this expansion, the intervening years had days so busy that all three berths at Canada Place and both berths at nearby Ballantyne Pier were full.  On a turnaround weekend, traffic around Canada Place was a nightmare, with over twelve thousand people embarking or disembarking.  But lurking behind the incredible numbers of passengers coming and going each year was the disturbing fact that each year, Port Metro Vancouver was loosing one or two ships to Seattle. 

The Alaska Passenger Head Tax, coupled with the worst recession in decades in addition to absurdly high air prices to Vancouver International Airport forced many cruise lines to reconsider their deployment practices, opting to send ships to Seattle, which offers cheaper airfare out of Sea-Tac for many US-based customers, and is just as close as Vancouver.

When the damage was done, it hit home with surprising ferocity.  This year, I could count on one hand how many crazy days there were: one in May, and one in September.  In fact, Ballantyne Pier sat vacant and underutilized between the Olympics in February and one busy September day that saw it used for Holland America‘s Rotterdam and NCL‘s Norwegian Pearl.  

It was the slowest, most uneventful year for the port. 

As we wrote back in September, while the future for Port Metro Vancouver looks brighter in 2011, there is still work to be done.  The arrival of Disney Cruise Line and Oceania to the port marks a definite highlight on the horizon.

Let’s hope it’s a highlight that is here to stay.


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