British Columbia·Opinion

For better or worse, the Lions Gate Bridge is a barrier to cruise-ship tourism

The Early Edition's About Here columnist Uytae Lee says the Lions Gate Bridge is preventing large cruise ships from entering the city — and says that could actually be a good thing.

The Early Edition's About Here columnist says the span is blocking ever-bigger boats

The Norwegian Jewel passed underneath the Lions Gate Bridge with just 10 metres of space above it. (Uytae Lee)

Every ship headed into Vancouver harbour needs to fit under the Lions Gate Bridge, which has a clearance height of 61 metres.

This is a problem for cruise ships like the Norwegian Bliss. At a height of 60 metres, it can only fit under the bridge at low tide. It's an issue that makes the local tourism industry very nervous.

As cruise ships grow in size, the Lions Gate Bridge is becoming a barrier to the tourism dollars the industry brings — and could be hampering Vancouver's bid to attract more lucrative cruises as competition from Seattle and Victoria increases.

A vessel like the Norwegian Bliss injects $3 million into the local economy each time it docks in the city, according to the Port of Vancouver. Passengers spend money on food, hotels, and souvenirs and cruise companies pay port fees and purchase fuel and supplies.

Nearby cities like Seattle and Victoria have harbours without bridges in the way and they've been getting more cruise traffic lately. In 2008, the number of passengers in Seattle surpassed Vancouver's numbers for the first time. Ever since, Vancouver has been in second place, with Victoria hot on its heels. 

With that in mind, the Port of Vancouver is now considering a new terminal in Delta or Richmond to accommodate these ships. 

I have to be honest: At first glance, this seems a bit desperate. Where is our confidence in Vancouver as a destination? If these cruise ships really wanted to come to the city, wouldn't they keep their ships small enough to fit under the bridge?

The Lions Gate Bridge, which connects Vancouver and West Vancouver, has a clearance height of 61 metres, making it too low for some of the larger cruise ships to pass under. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

I looked into this more and it turns out Vancouver isn't really the destination. It's actually a launching point.

The West Coast cruise ship industry exists because of Alaska. People want to see glaciers and fjords and those things are hard to get to by car. Until recently, Vancouver was the only place in the Pacific Northwest where cruise ships could start and end this journey. 

But in 1996, Seattle entered the scene with the Bell Street Cruise Terminal and, ever since, more and more cruise ships  start their Alaska trips there. In 2010, Seattle launched 70 per cent of all round-trip cruises to Alaska.

Victoria, which is currently a rest stop for these cruises, has also announced plans to turn its port into a launching point

Basically, the cruise industry doesn't need Vancouver. With most passengers headed to Alaska, the launching point can be any of these three cities. The industry can afford to sacrifice Vancouver for bigger vessels and profits.

When you see it this way, that terminal in Delta starts to make sense. But, in my opinion, doing that would still be a mistake. 

If you look at the data, Vancouver was losing business to Seattle way before the largest ships on the West Coast were even built. A report from the Port of Vancouver suggests the higher cost of flights to Vancouver compared to Seattle is a major factor behind this trend. The report doesn't mention the Lions Gate Bridge once.

Just over a decade ago, the number of cruise passengers in Seattle surpassed Vancouver. (Uytae Lee)

On top of that, cruise ships and the tourism they bring can be too much of a good thing. 

They come with an environmental impact; the jobs they create are often low paying and seasonal; and they tend to make us forget that destination cities are ultimately about the people who live there.

Venice and Barcelona are exploring limits on cruise ships after residents protested the "Disneyfication" effect on their cities, which they said were increasingly being treated like resorts. Even Victoria itself recently passed a motion to limit the number of cruise ships coming through its harbour. 

The Lions Gate Bridge, despite its flaws, is naturally placing limits on an industry that can become problematic if left untethered. Its height could actually be a blessing in disguise.

To hear the interview with Uytae Lee and The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn tap the audio link below:

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

With files from The Early Edition


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