Koningsdam's arrival in Victoria marks revival of the cruise sector after a two-year pandemic hiatus

The cruise ship Koningsdam stayed for 12 hours on Saturday, bringing 1,200 passengers (about half the usual number) and 900 crew

People watch from shore as the first cruise ship since 2019, MS Koningsdam, docks at Ogden Point terminal in Victoria Saturday | Photo: Darren Stone, Times Colonist

When Holland America’s Koningsdam pulled into Ogden Point Saturday morning it not only delivered sightseeing passengers to the capital region but brought welcome relief to tourism businesses which have been struggling to survive for more than two years.

The Koningsdam was the first cruise ship to arrive in Victoria and B.C. since the sector went on a global hiatus due to the pandemic. It stayed for 12 hours on Saturday with 1,200 passengers (about half the usual number) and 900 crew on a voyage out of San Diego.

“I was just out there crying when I saw the ship,” said Simone Rodriguez, of the family-owned Beaver Gift Shop at Ogden Point. “I am so emotional right now. It has been so hard the past two and a half years. It has devastated us.”

Rodriguez is anticipating a strong season, expecting it will start off a little slow because it’s April. “But I think it is going to ramp up. … We are a tourism town and we love our visitors.”

Ryan Oleschuk, owner of Victoria Bike Rentals at Ogden Point, also became teary at the sight of the Koningsdam. “It is one of the happiest days of my life.”

He scraped by thanks to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit during the pandemic and some savings. Now he’s thrilled to be back in business.

“We’ve been down 99 per cent since the cruise ships stopped.”

For the first time in many months, there is a sense of ­optimism among tourism ­operators. Alan Thimot, Victoria Pedicab company manager, ­happily ­predicted, “It’s going to be a great season.”

The first ship in Victoria this season was intended to be the Caribbean Princess but it cancelled its visit to instead go to dry dock. Princess Cruises subsequently confirmed there had been some COVID cases on board. The Caribbean Princess is scheduled to be the final ship to visit Victoria this year, on Nov. 3.

The Koningsdam pulled into Victoria with a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention green rating which means there were no reported cases of COVID or COVID-like illnesses.

It has been 905 days since a cruise ship called in Victoria. This year it is anticipated there will be 364 cruise ship visits to Victoria and 780,000 passengers.

All passengers must be fully vaccinated to board a ship stopping in Canada.

About 100 or so people showed up to watch the big ship arrive, many taking photos and some carrying Canadian flags to wave in a welcome to visitors.

Lori and Mark Ranson of James Bay were among the group.

“We like to see them dock,” Lori said. “It is exciting that they are back.”

The next cruise ship is the Viking Orion, scheduled to be in Victoria on April 16 at noon.

As the Koningsdam’s mask-wearing passengers disembarked, they were met by cheers from local residents and business representatives. Buses were ready to whisk them on a city tour or trip to Butchart Gardens, maps were handed out to those who wanted to stroll around on foot.

Passengers coming off the ship said they were confident that their trip was safe and they were comfortable wearing masks.

Jack Good, who lives near Seattle, Washington, was looking forward to visiting Butchart Gardens, a place he first saw in 1969.

He had no apprehensions about going on a trip, noting that he was keeping his mask on, and it was time for a vacation away from home.

“We travel a lot and we have been housebound for two years and just wanted to get out of the house.”

Karin and John Roberts, who live south of Seattle, were matter-of-fact about wearing masks, deciding to keep them on and enjoy a tour of the city followed by high tea.

They had a COVID test on Saturday morning to prepare to return to the U.S.

Brothers Dan and Randall Bentley, also from the Seattle area, planned a tour as well. They checked out the COVID rates locally and were pleased with the results.

Normally 80 to 85 per cent of passengers leave a ship to visit the city, said Ian Robertson, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority.

“It’s just fantastic seeing that vibrancy coming back.” Robertson said it was a team effort from industry advocates to government partners. “It is that collective effort of all partners that brought about the safe resumption of cruise in Canada.”

In downtown Victoria, Theresa Palmer, who operates the Out of Ireland store on Government Street, agreed. “I think it is wonderful that the cruise boats are back and we are delighted that tourism is returning to Victoria.”

The downtown business community is “crying out for more visitors,” she said.

Palmer is pleased to see an uptick in the number of independent American visitors. “They stay for a few days, they spend time in the shops and put money into the local economy.”

Visitors from Idaho were in Saturday morning, and many Seattle residents this past week, she said. “There’s definitely a feeling that the Americans are coming back.”

Gus Antorcha, Holland America Line president, at Ogden Point to mark the Koningsdam’s arrival, said the line expects to bring more than 75,000 passengers to Victoria in a total of 45 calls by six different ships this year.

“We are very thankful that everyone was able to work together and allow us to resume cruising here.”

B.C. Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said there had been strong cruise-ship momentum in 2019. “So it is really good to see that starting to show recovery and obviously international demand for travel is going to come back.”

Recovery will probably take some time, he said. “But the tourism industry looks set to come roaring back safely and it’s really really good to see small business owners and workers here in Victoria who have waited a long time and suffered economic hardship to be able to do what they love doing in their lives.”

Victoria Acting Mayor Marianne Alto said the difference can already be felt downtown. “You see the excitement that is there and the folks who are prepping for a large influx of people who are going to get off the ships.”

The city has enhanced downtown and made it more attractive and cleaner which will give visitors a better experience, she said. Part of Government Street, for example, is closed to vehicle traffic for much of the day.

There is some unhappiness with regulations governing large vessels. The World Worldlife Fund Canada said all types of ships operating in Canadian waters generate, and potentially dump, billions of litres of operational waste annually.

The group is urging the federal government to bring in more stringent rules and increase its minimum standards around vessels dumping waste in marine protected areas.