British Columbia

Tourism fears grow as B.C.'s top doctor advises delay to cruise-ship season amid coronavirus spread

The top doctor in British Columbia says the province's lucrative cruise ship season should be delayed to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus, dealing another blow to an already anxious industry and tourism sector.

Disruption would be costly for B.C.'s tourism industry, which is already suffering slowdown

In the summer, Victoria swarms with tourists who stop in the city on a cruise line between Seattle and Alaska every summer. The province's top doctor on Monday recommended the cruise ship season be delayed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, intensifying worry within the tourism sector. (The Canadian Press/Chad Hipolito)

The top doctor in British Columbia says the province's lucrative cruise-ship season should be delayed to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus, dealing another blow to an anxious tourism industry already bracing for a costly slowdown in its busiest season.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry shared her recommendation at a news conference Monday, shortly after confirming Canada's first death related to COVID-19 had been recorded in B.C.

"We are in a very critical time around the world and it is my belief that we should be delaying our cruise season until we are safe internationally," Henry told reporters from Victoria.

The comments came hours after Canada's chief public health officer told Canadians to avoid travelling on all cruise ships.

Dr. Theresa Tam warned the ships create a higher risk of infection and leave citizens vulnerable to possible international travel restrictions, particularly quarantines.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Monday the country's first death related to COVID-19. (MIke McArthur/CBC)

'It will likely not be a great year'

The recommendations from two top doctors intensified concerns for the cruise industry and wider tourism sector, both of which had already been anticipating slower spring and summer seasons as the coronavirus outbreak chills international travel.

"It will likely not be a great year," said Ted Lee, CEO of Tourism Vancouver.

Tourism is a key moneymaking industry in Victoria and Vancouver. The latter region typically sees more than 11 million visitors every year, collectively spending about $5 billion and helping create the need for 70,000 jobs, according to Lee and Tourism Vancouver. Souvenir shops, local restaurants, tour companies and many other local businesses would feel a slowdown acutely.

The cruise ship Carnival Spirit leaves the Port of Vancouver on May 5, 2010. (Globe and Mail)

Lee said 2019 marked one of the busiest cruise seasons on record for the Port of Vancouver, with more than 280 ships making a stop in the city. With each sailing bringing an estimated $3 million in economic activity, the season made $840 million in a matter of months, Tourism Vancouver says.

"Cruise is a significant part of our summer business," said Lee.

The Public Health Agency of Canada on Monday said cruise ship passengers include people "travelling from around the world who may be arriving from areas with known or unknown spread of the novel coronavirus."

A statement said the virus can spread quickly on board a ship because passengers are in close contact. There has also been concern as the elderly, who are at risk of severe illness caused by the virus, favour cruises as vacation options.

Henry said the decision to delay the cruise ship season would ultimately come from federal agencies, including Transport Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency. She said those agencies do consider health officials' advice.

Passengers aboard the cruise ship World Dream, docked at Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on Feb. 8, 2020. The ship and its approximately 1,800 passengers were quarantined in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour last month. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Henry said she expected Ottawa to make a decision "in coming days," but at least one travel agency in Vancouver said the move would take time.

"To the best of my understanding, it's almost impossible to [delay]. These ships work on a well thought-out schedule — a year-and-a-half to two years of planning in advance," said Sanjay Goel, CEO of Cruise Connections Canada, a business centred on booking cruises and other relevant travel.

"It's really not feasible," Goel said. "I think any type of suggestion to delay an entire season is probably an overstep."

The cruise ship season is set to begin in Vancouver on April 2 and in Victoria on April 3. The first vessel on the schedule in both cities is the Grand Princess, a ship currently stuck in California due to an outbreak of coronavirus on board. 

As of Tuesday morning, Canada has at least 78 cases of COVID-19, with 32 in British Columbia. On Monday, a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions died at a long-term care home in North Vancouver, marking the first coronavirus-related death in the country.

With files from Rafferty Baker and Benoit Ferradini

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