A top official in the cruise line industry is warning Vancouver may soon be unable to accommodate the growing tourism demand without investing in its facilities.

Greg Wirtz, president of the Cruise Lines International Association in the North West and Canada, says Vancouver is lagging behind other cities, such as Seattle, that are investing heavily in their port infrastructure.

"We've kind of done the opposite in Vancouver. We've disinvested in facilities," Wirtz said.

The Port of Vancouver shut down the Ballantyne Pier to cruise ships in 2014, leaving Canada Place as the city's only remaining cruise terminal.

The closure has since exacerbated the congestion at Canada Place, Wirtz said.

Vancouver's cruise passenger traffic grew from a low of 600,000 passengers in 2010 to 827,000 passengers in 2016.

Ships getting bigger

The average capacity of cruise ships has increased by 138 per cent to 3,100 passengers, according to the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure.

The average vessel length has also increased by 50 per cent, up to 300 metres, the association reports.

"Canada Place was built for ships of a generation ago," Wirtz said. 

In May, port officials in Seattle unveiled a $30 million renovation at the Bell Street Cruise Terminal at Pier 66.

The expansion tripled the terminal's square footage and was custom designed for the Norwegian Bliss, set to become the largest cruise ship on the West Coast in 2018.  

The Port of Seattle and Norwegian Cruise Line each shelled out $15 million for the renovation. 

Wirtz acknowledged the high cost of building a new facility but said tourism pours money back into Vancouver's economy.

Each cruise ship stimulates more than $2 million in economic activity, according to the Port of Vancouver.

Eyeing a new terminal

The Port of Vancouver says it's mulling plans for a future facility and is in talks with tourism associations and governments.

"There's not a bunch of idle locations around," said Peter Xotta, the port's vice-president of planning and operations.

"This is something that's going to take a fair amount of due diligence."

Xotta said it was too early to speculate about possible locations.

The port has also heard concerns from the cruise sector about the height limitation posed by the Lion's Gate Bridge.

There's roughly a 60-metre distance between the water and the lowest part of the bridge at its centre point, which can change depending on the tide.

The Explorer of the Seas ship from Royal Caribbean International has had to bypass Vancouver for Victoria because the ship is too big.

"What we've done over the last number of years is establish very clear and much more strict guidelines for vessel transiting," Xotta said.

"Particularly those vessels that might approach what we call the safety margin of clearance, or in this case, below the bridge deck."


With files from CBC's The Early Edition