Port wants cruise ship behemoths

Tourism Officials say they want to attract the next generation of bigger ships

 SAINT JOHN - The last cruise ship of the year, the Queen Mary 2, docked in the city on a rainy, cold Tuesday morning - a contradictory end for a cruise ship season that has been the sunniest on record.

                                   

Along with such milestones as 187,000 passengers and 73 visits by various cruise ship lines, the Saint John Port Authority finished third in voting for the Transit Port of the Year 2009 at the Seatrade Insider's Cruise Awards. The award recognizes significant improvements to a port's handling facilities and cruise-tourism infrastructure over the past year.

A major part of the reason Saint John won the award was the new $11-million Marco Polo Cruise Terminal. In operation for its first season, the terminal received rave reviews.

"In general it worked better than anticipated," said Capt. Al Soppitt, president and CEO of the port.

Over the last five years, said Soppitt, the authority has invested over $20 million on improvements to the port infrastructure to handle cruise ships.

Provincial Minister of Tourism and Parks Stuart Jamieson was also on hand to see the final ship of the year.

"It's a $25-million boost to our economy," Jamieson said of the cruise industry.

With 187,000 passengers this year, Saint John is nipping at the heels of Halifax - the top cruise ship destination in Atlantic Canada. Cruise Halifax estimated their 2009 passenger numbers to be 220,000.

"It's a very close race," Jamieson said of the battle for top spot.

Next year, said Soppitt, the port expects to smash through the 200,000 passenger mark. That's two years ahead of the port's previous projections.

Mayor Ivan Court took a tour of the Queen Mary 2 on Tuesday, but before he boarded the ship he praised those who made it happen - the port, the volunteers and the friendly nature of the citizens of Saint John.

"Out of a hurricane came a golden pot," Court said.

The first cruise ship to visit the port was the Cunard Princess and her 500 passengers that came to Saint John in 1989 seeking safe haven from Hurricane Gabrielle.

"There's no community that treats them as well as Saint John," Court said.

Outside the terminal the rain had let up. A group of four people studied a map of the city's sites. The two couples from England were among the few that weren't bundled up in winter jackets, toques and mittens.

"It's like being at home really," said Eddy Williams with a slight grin.

"It's kind of warm," said John Hugill.

The two men and their wives were getting ready to strike out on their own, avoiding the tours that take passengers to various sites such as St. Martins.

"We like the old architecture," Williams said, adding that they have a few old buildings at home also.

Cruise Saint John suggests each passenger will spend on average $56.75 each day and $28 per crew member.

Over at the vendors' tent beside the terminal, Mary Sears worked at the Moosehead Breweries booth.

"August and September were fabulous," she said of the sales of Moosehead souvenirs.

With cruise ships getting bigger each year, Soppitt said the work to straighten and lengthen Pugsley C Wharf is critical.

The Queen Mary 2 is 345 metres, but it's dwarfed by the brand new 650-metre Oasis of the Seas. The world's largest cruise ship cost $1.5 billion to build and carries 5,400 passengers and 2,165 crew.

The port has only one wharf that could handle the Oasis of the Seas. While it's not confirmed, the massive ship could visit Saint John in 2010 or 2011.

By 2015, said Soppitt, he expects 300,000 passengers and being able to handle the larger line of ships will be a major contributor to reaching that milestone.

"These ships are getting larger," Soppitt said.

Published Wednesday November 4th, 2009 - Telegraph Journal