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The Perfect Storm of Tourism

12,000 tourists, 5 cruise ships, 1 day — Victoria’s highest-ever volume of cruise ships docks heavy weight on the city
Victoria AM Association past president Louise Chabros and vice-president Jeff Hayes stand in front of the cruise ship Rhapsody Of The Seas, anchored at Ogden Point.

12,000 tourists, 5 cruise ships, 1 day — Victoria’s highest-ever volume of cruise ships docks heavy weight on the city

The tourists are coming. This is not the usual summer inflation of people from around the world busting to see one of Canada’s prettiest cities — we’re talking a lot of tourists, almost 12,000 to be exact, and all arriving on one specific day: Thursday, May 31.

These colossal boats have become a vital part of Victoria’s tourist economy over the last 30 years, but on Thursday the city will see its first-ever berthing of five full vessels, all with aims to dock for six to eight hours each before retracting back into the water to carry on their merry routes. Each ship will release 2,000-plus passengers and crew to sample what Victoria has to offer, starting at 6 a.m. and tag teaming the harbour’s three berths until 6:30 p.m. Meanwhile, the city, businesses, buses and residents will be left to manage the temporary population explosion as best they can.

“Our main goal is to make sure that every visitor has the best experience possible, from the moment they step on that tour bus to off again,” says Ken Kelly, general manager of the Downtown Victoria Business Association. “Times are still hard for Victoria; cruise ship passengers used to be the icing on the cake for us — now, they’re becoming the cake.”

Tourism on a stick

When it comes to enjoying the treats of tourism, none are quite so giddy as the Victoria AM Association, a group of volunteer greeters who dress up in Victorian era-inspired costumes to welcome the thousands of visitors every week.

“It’s always seemed kind of funny to me how people are given this idea of what Victoria looks like, with its beautiful flowers and merchants and Inner Harbour, then tourists get off the boat in this huge concrete parking lot, somewhat bewildered, and they must wonder where they’ve wound up,” says Rod Burkhart, president of Victoria AM.

In an effort to start the experience off right, Burkhart and 40 or so greeters act as the first line of defence to help tourists find their way, answer questions and sneak a glimpse of fun-to-come. The group was originally founded in 1984 by local business and restaurant owners (though the team has no official lobby) and came up with the name due to early morning meetings before the ships docked — now, Burkhart says, it also represents Victoria “AMbassadors.”

Of all those impacted by the onslaught of Thursday’s ship schedule, the greeters may be the hardest hit — though they’re also, perhaps, the ones most looking forward to it.

“Thursday will certainly tax our resources, and many may put in extra shifts, but these are people who do this for the pure passion of our city, and because they want everyone to know how wonderful Victoria is,” says Burkhart. “Many of our volunteers are retired, and they’ve even made their own costumes; this is what they look forward to most.”

Burkhart says one of the most refreshing things visitors discover is that, unlike some places they’ve stopped at, the greeters are not trying to sell them anything — they just want to help. And, this year, Victoria AM is looking for locals ready to help, too, especially young volunteers wanting to come aboard. The association trains all volunteers on resources and potential questions, but telling a tourist “the best place for afternoon tea” and such is left up to the greeter’s preferences. The top question, Burkhart says, is always, “How do I get to Butchart Gardens?”

“We do get some funny questions and, once, a gentleman asked me, in all seriousness, where could he buy some hides and pelts,” says Burkhart. “I told him, ‘I don’t think that’s legal, anymore, sir’.”

More than maple candy

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), that runs the terminal out in Ogden Point, is another group that looks forward to every cruise ship season.

Curtis Grad, president and CEO of GVHA, says that since summer hasn’t quite arrived yet, the city and local businesses will have no problem absorbing the extra bodies — especially because they will be distributed between downtown, Dallas Road, Butchart Gardens and other visitor hot spots. However, he says the GVHA recognizes the tension between the role the cruise ships have on Victoria’s economy and on the nearby communities.

“We know it’s always a balancing act, and cruise ships do impact locals, but we’re also seeing some new trends that are helping to make Victoria a real draw to the ships,” Grad says. “For example, the average age of the passengers has come down dramatically and so we are seeing more people walk into town and access different resources than before.”

Grad, who has been in his role for a year and a half, says the GVHA is “encouraged” by improvements the cruise ships and tour buses have made in recent years to combat noise and emissions. Next year, Grad says plans are in the works for a harbour ferry stop that would shuttle visitors straight from Ogden Point to downtown, as well as a whale-watching boat that would depart directly from the terminal, to cut down on unnecessary traffic.

“Victoria rates very high in the world, compared to other cities, on how we handle our tourism,” Grad says. “Compared to places like Alaska, we do still have some challenges to work through, but when you look at the big picture, we’re doing well.”

The business of ship tourism, which has doubled in the last 10 years, is big. A scheduled 229 cruise ships will dock at Ogden Point this season, and all must pay tariffs based on length of ship, length of time docked, number of passengers embarking and services needed.

For an eight-hour docking, ships with less than 30,000 passengers pay between $515 and $2,472 based on their length in the birth, as well as a charge per passenger, which ranges from $4.30 for children to $8.55 for adults. Since most of the vessels bring about 2,000 passengers each, the numbers start to add up — more than $17,000 per boat in passenger fees alone.

Yet Victoria’s popularity isn’t just due to flowers, double-decker buses and historic buildings. The Jones Act mandates that any foreign vessel transporting passengers through Canadian costal waters must make at least one stop at a port of their choosing. The choices along our coast include Vancouver, Nanaimo, Prince Rupert, Campbell River and, of course, our conveniently accessible city on the tip of the Island.

“The remarkable thing is that, because people visit us from all over the world, and they come with languages, accents and stories from their countries, we literally have the world brought to our doorstep,” says Grad. “This is a wonderful time to be a tourist and a resident in Victoria — we’re about to celebrate 150 years of the city’s history.”

Not everyone is excited

Still, not everyone is excited about the full berth of ships to hit our shore. The James Bay Neighbourhood Association (JBNA) has performed a number of studies since 2001 that have identified the negative repercussions the cruise tourism industry has had on James Bay, home of the Ogden Point terminal. These include disturbances in air quality, noise and traffic density.

“Good tourism interacts with community, bad tourism impacts community,” says Marg Gardiner, president of JBNA. “The problem is not with the cruise ships themselves, but with the fact that this city has allowed cruise companies to have the say. We bow to them. And they fly flags of convenience, which makes it harder to control them.”

Last April, the JBNA presented its first “Dirty Air Cruise Ship of the Year Awards.” Winners were chosen from raw one-hour data readings taken from the single sulphur dioxide (SO2) monitoring station installed near Victoria Harbour for the 2011 cruise ship season. The 2011 winner of the Individual Ship Category was the Crystal Symphony, a ship owned by Crystal Cruises of Los Angeles, flagged out of the Bahamas. Winners of the one-hour Team Category were Holland America’s Amsterdam of Carnival, Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Infinity and Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, all of which will be hitting Victoria again on May 31.

But while the JBNA considers environmental factors to be the most threatening of issues, including the fact that ships often deposit their garbage and recycling in Victoria before carrying on, Gardiner says many of the complaints the JBNA hears isn’t about the ships at all — it’s about the tour buses.

“Of all the calls we get about disturbance, noise from the tour buses is by far the worst,” she says. “These are not buses made for city driving, these are big highway buses designed to carry luggage. They are decades behind and they’re not urban friendly.”

A 2009 survey performed by the JBNA showed traffic volume and noise was the most pressing priority. Last year, the city performed a data collection of traffic, which the JBNA analyzed to show that for each cruise ship, there were 384 extra vehicle movements (taxis, cars, etc.) through the area, with 42 of those being large tour buses. On a three-ship evening, that means over 1,100 extra vehicle movements.

Meanwhile, Gardiner adds, as ship numbers increase, residents are largely left to fend for themselves while sleep patterns and air quality is disrupted.

“If you had an event or a parade downtown where thousands of people were going to be heading, you’d call it a special event,” Gardiner says. “You’d give people a warning. Why isn’t each cruise ship landing in our city classed as a special event?”

Cruise Victoria Services (CVS) is the company largely responsible for shuttling tourists to and from downtown. The company operates 19 of the big buses that Gardiner speaks about, with up to 10 of those rotating back and forth to the cruise ships on a busy night.

For $8, visitors can access an unlimited day pass to anywhere the buses take them. However, despite each bus being able to carry a maximum of 56 passengers, CVS manager Gary Gale says that, even on full cruise days, buses often only reach a capacity of 92 per cent. Gale has no concerns about the density coming this Thursday and, despite the 12,000-person threat, says the buses will be adequate.

“Honestly, [May 31] won’t be much different than the other days we do — it’s just going to be a really long day for everyone,” he says.

While CVS is only one option for tourists — there are also taxies, pedicabs, horse-drawn carriages, city and alternative transit options along with walking maps to town — Gale says quality of service will not be an issue when dealing with higher tourist volumes. In fact, he says, for a while now the city has had to run with less steam than usual.

“Fifteen years ago, Victoria was packed with tourists from many sources and, in those days, we worked hard, but that hasn’t happened to this city for a long time,” Gale says.

Gale and the DVBA’s Kelly make no qualms that Victoria does pander to the tourists.

The Bay Centre, for example, will stay open until 10 p.m. on the night of the five cruise ships, which Kelly says “sends a strong message” to other businesses in the area to accommodate those arriving later in the day.

“In Victoria, you have to fall into one of two categories. Either you’re going to love the excitement of the genuine unique atmosphere and you’re one of the people who thrives on the kinetic energy tourists bring to our city,” says Kelly. “Or, we’ll see you the next day.”

But whether your mission is to embrace the harbour or avoid the crush of a crowd, Kelly notes that we all have a role to play in tourism, especially for those who work downtown.

“Folks visit us from around the world and, certainly, there might be some funny questions we get asked, but there are three things we can do,” Kelly says. “One, always make the visitor feel welcome; two, be as responsive as possible; three, just be patient.” M