P.E.I. caught in 'balancing act' between health, economic concerns around 2020 cruise season

Concerns are mounting around the potential for lost cruise ship business on P.E.I., as yet there has been no official plan put forward to minimize the risk of the coronavirus spreading from passengers and crew disembarking in Charlottetown and other Canadian ports-of-call.

First 2 cruise ships scheduled to arrive in Charlottetown on April 29

Charlottetown Port Authority has been billing the 2020 cruise ship season as its 'biggest year yet,' with 97 visits scheduled. (CBC)

This week top health officials in P.E.I. and Ottawa warned residents to "think twice" before going on a cruise, given how easily coronavirus can spread on the ships among passengers and crew.

But as concerns mount around the potential for lost cruise ship business here at home, there has been no official plan put forward to minimize the risk of the disease spreading from passengers and crew disembarking in Charlottetown and other Canadian ports-of-call.

"That is certainly a consideration, and we've been talking about that because that's really part of what impacts our economy and tourism," Dr. Heather Morrison, P.E.I.'s chief public health officer, said Wednesday in response to a question from a caller to a phone-in segment on CBC Radio's Island Morning.

Morrison said there are discussions underway involving all the provinces that see significant cruise ship traffic — P.E.I., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and B.C. — and the federal government, over how to manage any health-care risks from the cruise ship industry.

"We're concerned because we certainly don't want a situation where we have a lot of, potentially, people who are sick getting on and off here in Charlottetown," said Morrison.

Near the end of the 2019 season, Port Charlottetown said it estimates the economic impact of all the passengers is over $21 million. (Travis Kingdon/CBC News)

On its web page, the Charlottetown Port Authority has been billing the 2020 cruise ship season as its "biggest year yet," with 97 visits scheduled. The first two ships are scheduled to drop anchor April 29.

According to the port authority, the combined capacity from all those berthings is 154,367 passengers and 73,263 crew.

On Tuesday, the port issued a statement saying it's "working in close co-ordination with our partner ports both regionally, across Canada and the United States, to work toward a comprehensive plan in preparation for the upcoming cruise season."

The port authority has declined multiple requests for interviews this week, saying it won't have anything more to say until it has answers to the questions people are asking.

Cruise ship scrutiny 

Meanwhile the Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC in an email statement it is "actively monitoring the situation regarding COVID-19 and is engaged with its partners to ensure Canada remains prepared for any public health events aboard cruise ships."

The agency said it has the power to inspect cruise ships entering Canadian waters and that "comprehensive measures, including quarantine, may be taken if there is significant risk to public health."

"As the situation evolves, many countries are implementing policies and restrictions to contain the outbreak," the statement said. "The government of Canada is also planning for all possible scenarios regarding cruise ships coming to Canadian ports in light of risks associated with COVID-19."

Minister of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture Matthew MacKay says they are working closely with federal counterparts. (Al MacCormick/CBC)

Nervously eyeing the coming tourism season and the cruise ship season in particular, P.E.I.'s Minister of Tourism Matthew MacKay said it's a "balancing act" trying to safeguard vital tourism revenues in the province, while at the same time trying to protect Island residents against the spread of COVID-19.

"We're just hoping that, you know, everybody remains healthy and safe. That's the most important," MacKay said. He also said he's still hopeful to see growth in the tourism industry even though the province is reducing revenue forecasts in response to global reaction to the spread of the illness.

MacKay said he hoped P.E.I. might weather the storm, particularly if Canadians decide to travel within the country rather than head overseas, as most of the province's tourism marketing budget is already spent domestically.

He said he is concerned about the cruise ship season, the saving grace possibly being that most of P.E.I.'s traffic comes during the fall, when worries about COVID-19 might have dissipated.

While he's hopeful for continued growth, he said the worst-case scenario he's considered is "people could not travel at all," something he said would be "devastating for the province."

Economic ripple

Bill Watters, the owner of Northern Watters Knitwear, a Charlottetown store that produces its own woolen products said the store spends thousands of dollars each year advertising directly to passengers on cruise ships.

Bill Watters, owner of Northern Watters Knitwear, says his stress level is through the roof as he looks across at an empty store. (Al MacCormick/CBC)

He said there have always been risks to prevent cruise ships and their passengers from reaching Charlottetown and his shop — mostly weather-related. Now, you can add COVID-19 to the list.

"There is that possibility, yes, that we will not see as many people," Watters said. "Will some cruise ships cancel because they cannot fill their ships? That's a big thing too."

Watters said it's a variable that they cannot count on, and they will just have to deal with the season as it comes.

More from CBC P.E.I. 


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.