New Brunswick

Port Saint John CEO predicts cruise ship ban extension, cancellations

Saint John's port and tourist industry is bracing for more cruise trip cancellations and loss of revenue due to COVID-19.

Cruise ship industry that accounts for 15 per cent of port revenue has been disrupted by COVID-19

Port Saint John CEO Jim Quinn says the port expects more cruise ship cancellations before the end of the season. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

The Saint John businesses that have come to depend on the cruise ship industry are bracing for more trip cancellations and loss of revenue due to COVID-19.

Port Saint John CEO Jim Quinn said the 2020 season was expected to bring record-setting revenue, but instead the port has seen cancellations of 40 visits, which will cost the city 80,000 visitors.

The port is expecting even more losses before the year ends, he said at the port's annual general meeting Thursday.

"We do expect to hear about the remaining vessels for 2020 in the coming weeks," he said. "We will hear more about further cancellations."

He said jurisdictional requirements and health agencies inside and outside Canada have been deciding which cruise ships can start journeys and dock in Saint John.

"As you know, the maritime sector hardest hit by COVID-19 has been the cruise sector," he said.

In March, Ottawa announced a ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters until July 1. That meant 22 cruise ships scheduled to dock between April 24 and June 25 in Saint John could not do so. In an interview, Quinn says he wouldn't be surprised if the government extends this ban further into the summer.

The port has also lost Sky Princess, the Caribbean Princess, the Carnival Radiance and Holland America's Zaandem, all scheduled to visit between Aug. 2 and Nov. 3.

Quinn previously said the port was still hoping to make some revenue from the busy season in September and October. Quinn said he's still holding on to that hope, but can't see into the future - especially since the majority of ships come from New York.

"We're three months out from September and there's a lot of water to go under the bridge," he said.

There are going to be people affected​​​​- Beth Kelly Hatt, Aquila Tours.

There are approximately 50 calls still on the schedule from July 31 to Oct. 27. Quinn said he's not sure how many of these will be cancelled or when. But he does know that after losing 50 per cent of the cruise ships, the tourism industry will be counting on locals vacationing in the same province and going to restaurants and hotels.

Beth Kelly Hatt of Aquila Tours said if the major remaining cruise liners cancel, her company will lose 80 per cent of its revenue. She said it's been adapting online workshops for other tour companies, which will bring in some revenue.

She said restaurants, shops and suppliers in Saint John are counting on staycationers.

"For most of our suppliers it's going to be New Brunswickers visiting at home this summer," she said.

Hatt said she's not planning on laying off any of the nine staff in her tour company, but she doesn't expect to be hiring any seasonal workers or tour guides, drivers and suppliers.

"There are going to be people affected," she said.

Beth Kelly Hatt, founder of Saint John-based Aquila Tours says there has been an increase in cruise bookings for 2021, but there might not be much cruise ship activity this year.  (Submitted by Aquila Tours)

However, Hatt says booking numbers show the 2021 season will be much stronger.

"The booking numbers are up which is really surprising," she said. "I think there's a pent up demand for travel and for cruise."

She said booking for November and December of this year and into 2021 are higher than a year ago.

Other sources of revenue

At the general meeting, Quinn said the port took in more money in 2019 than it did in 2018, but the net income was down because of increased expenses.

Quinn said revenues grew from $23 million to $24 million. Cruises account for 15 per cent of revenue, said port spokesperson Paula Copeland.

Expenses were up because of infrastructure and labour costs, Quinn said, 2019 net income was about $3.5 million, almost a million lower than the previous year's $4.4 million.

Quinn the 2019 revenues are the best they've been in a long time.

"We had a very good year," Quinn said.

There were a few disappointments. Total dry bulk imports, including potash and salt, took a big hit this past year. Total importing volume decreased by 50 per cent, the annual report shows. 

This is partly because the closure of the potash mine in Sussex led the province to strike a deal to buy road salt from there for the next two years. This decreased the need for imported salt.

There is also a decline in potash demand in some markets, the report said.

"If we were strictly a dry bulk ... we wouldn't be in a good position but fortunately we're involved in all sectors," Quinn said.

The port saw a one per cent increase in overall cargo tonnage in 2019. That includes increased shipments of limestone and gypsum.

There was also an increase in shipping container imports, Quinn said, which has been steadily increasing over the last three years.

Liquid bulk, including crude oil, petroleum, liquefied natural gas, fish oil, molasses, caustic soda, calcium chloride, and magnesium chloride coming through the port has increased, but volume is still recovering from the Irving Oil refinery explosion which caused a big hit in 2017-2018.

Another concern for the coming year is venue rentals. The port rents the Diamond Jubilee and Marco Polo terminals for events and gatherings and it's an important source of income. The venues won't be making the port much money as large gatherings will likely remain banned by the province for months to come.

About the Author

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca

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