More than just a port of call: Cruise ship visits could help build Alberni's tourism

Mike Youds, January 29, 2019

MS Maasdam, shown here at anchor in the Caribbean with its fleet of Zodiacs alongside, visits Port Alberni this spring and summer. (Holland America photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

Three cruise ship visits to Port Alberni in the coming months will be different from past visits, including more First Nations involvement and potential long-term business opportunities.

MS Maasdam, a 56,000-tonne ship owned by Seattle-based Holland America Line, is scheduled to sail past Polly’s Point May 25, June 15 and July 26, carrying more than 1,200 passengers to Harbour Quay.

“Getting three visits is a real coup,” said Bill Collette, manager of Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce. “The opportunities are substantial for us in town for showcasing the natural beauty and the First Nations communities.”

There are opportunities not only in local tourism but in the major growth of the cruise ship market. According to the tracking website CruiseMapper, the industry is poised for significant growth with 2018 revenues of $40 billion forecast to rise to $59 billion by 2027. North America generates more than half that business.

Maasdam’s visits are part of Holland America’s “expedition demographic” test for a younger, more active type of cruise passenger. Named after the Maas River in the Netherlands, Maasdam is a sister ship to MS Statendam, which visited the port in 2009. These are medium-sized vessels built 25 to 30 years ago with a high degree of comfort and luxury.

In recent years, the industry has expanded its fleet with ever greater variety, bringing larger and smaller additions into the picture. Symphony of the Seas, launched in 2018, is the largest passenger ship ever built, five times the size of the Titanic. Meanwhile, 32 smaller ships are on order worldwide, signalling a fresh approach to the traditional silver-haired cruise market.

Those trends offer an opportunity for the community as a whole to work together to build regional tourism based on the valley’s natural features, outdoor recreation and authentic experiences. The City of Port Alberni, Port Alberni Port Authority and Alberni Valley Tourism are investing $50,000 or more on preparations, including a facelift for Harbour Quay, to ensure the welcome leaves visitors impressed.

Collette said the idea is to capitalize on the visits so that the port becomes a more frequent stop on the world cruise map in future years.

“It’s very important,” he said. “They’re only here a few hours. I think if we showcase properly, everybody has a chance to win. It’s a big opportunity to tease a little and promote tourism. It’s our opportunity to market the area. My role is to quarterback everything.”

In partnership with the city and local First Nations, the chamber has to make the most of what will be brief, one-day affairs. The ship is expected to arrive mid-morning and weigh anchor by 5 p.m.

A cruise ship committee has tapped about two dozen local people to manage various tasks, ranging from music to traffic management. Jeff Cook, a Huu-ay-aht hawilth (hereditary chief), and Corey Anderson, Tseshaht councillor, have volunteered to co-ordinate the First Nations component for the three visits.

Long active in the valley community — he was named Port Alberni’s Citizen of the Year in 2017 — Cook said a lot of preparation is in order. He sounded out the two host First Nations, Tseshaht and Hupacasath, on the spring and summer visits.

“They’ve shown an interest in the cruise ships coming to town,” said Cook, who sits on the port authority board. “We really haven’t done any planning yet, but we’d like to see a strong First Nations component and a welcoming ceremony.”

He wants to see wider participation by local First Nations beyond the dockside ceremonies when the vessel ties up at Harbour Quay. That may consist of tours tying in the Tseshaht big house or Hupacasath businesses.

A community activist and promoter of the valley, Cook sees the long-term potential if Port Alberni can make a lasting impression. Economic development for Hupacasath and Tseshaht should be part of the overall plan.

“There’s got to be some benefit for First Nations other than being open and welcoming,” he said.

The various co-ordinators are about to embark on the next round of preparations. They’re taking part in special training sessions on Jan. 30-31 with the Aquila Centre for Cruise Excellence, a New Brunswick-based company that provides cruise experience training.

Collette said Port Alberni has proven to be a hit with the more traditional cruise market, based on feedback from previous visits through cruise-line excursions out of Nanaimo.

“We’re not a tourism mecca yet, but we have a lot of tourism potential,” he said. “They love what we have. What we have, others don’t have,” he added, listing the heritage railway, McLean Mill, Alberni Inlet and natural attractions.

Holland America’s website lists three options for the Port Alberni stop, a two to three-hour coach excursion to Cathedral Grove, a five-hour road tour to Stamp Falls and Little Qualicum Falls and a city highlights alternative.