Vancouver: a new gateway for cruises to Alaska

Vancouver is set for a cruise boom with Cunard, Viking Ocean and Azamara planning to offer Alaskan itineraries from the city in 2019. Frances Marcellin looks at Vancouver’s cruise market, the ideal departure point for cruises to Alaska

ast year, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Vancouver the third most liveable city in the world, just behind Melbourne and Vienna. This bustling seaport on Canada’s west coast in British Columbia has also long been a popular cruise port and tourist destination.

With Canada Place terminal just a 15-minute walk from downtown Vancouver, it has always offered fast and easy access to one of the most highly rated cities in the world. With a vibrant variety of neighbourhoods to explore, such as Gastown, Chinatown and Granville Island, Stanley Park, Science World and the Museum of Anthropology, which many call an architectural masterpiece, there is an abundance of city attractions on the port’s doorstep.

Gateway to Whistler, the Rockies… and Alaska

Vancouver is also a gateway to the town of Whistler, which is home to one of North America’s largest ski resorts, Whistler Backcomb, some 120km away, and the Rocky Mountains. These are further afield, but transportation links take travellers directly from the port to the airport in just 30 minutes – a legacy from the infrastructure built during the 2010 Winter Olympics – and scenic coach and rail services cover the 800km journey, often bringing travellers to Jasper National Park (on the north of the mountain range) or to Banff National Park (to the south).

“The Port of Vancouver continues to be a home port to ships from the world’s leading cruise lines.”

The Port of Vancouver continues to be a home port to ships from the world’s leading cruise lines, including Holland America, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

Almost every day during cruise season an Alaska-bound cruise ship leaves the port of Vancouver.

Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas takes passengers on seven-night Northbound Alaska & Hubbard Glacier cruises through Ketchikan, Juneau to the Seward Passenger Ship Terminal. Celebrity Eclipse takes passengers on a ten-night cruise in May through Sitka, Icy Straight Point and Tracy Arm Fjord.

Record-breaking passenger numbers

As Vancouver has grown in popularity, so has its cruise port. “We're welcoming 895,000 passengers on 241 vessels, a 7% growth in passenger volume over 2017,” says Carmen Ortega, manager of trade development at Vancouver Fraser Port.

The new 303m Norwegian Bliss, which can carry 4,004 passengers, is coming to Canada Place in September. As it’s the largest ship visiting the Port of Vancouver to date, Ortega says that additional organisation will need to be put in place to ensure plain sailing.

“We're welcoming 895,000 passengers on 241 vessels, a 7% growth in passenger volume over 2017.”

When Norwegian Bliss arrives in the Port of Vancouver on the last day of September, it will join two other ships there: Holland America’s MS Westerdam and MS Noordam.

“That day will be a record-breaking day for us and what it means is that we need to – and we do this anyway, but in particular that day – work closely with the city of Vancouver for traffic management,” she explains.

The port also works with transportation providers on site and taxi companies, and issues advisories to let the general public know it is going to be busy in the area, as well as advising guests to plan transportation in advance.

Back come the old and in come the new 

Windstar Cruises is also returning after two decades away, offering Alaskan voyages starting at 11 days. With capacity for just 212 guests, this small luxury cruise ship takes passengers on a historic journey through frontier towns and gets close enough to nature for guests to watch brown bears, bald eagles, glaciers and fjords. It also offers experiences such as dogsledding and a chance to do the world's largest zipline at Icy Strait Point.

But if 2018 is going to put pressure on the port’s capacity, 2019 is set to be even bigger.

“We’re going to see over one million passengers, which will be our record year in the history of the business. That’s about a 20% growth,” says Ortega.

“With capacity for just 212 guests, this small luxury cruise ship takes passengers on a historic journey.”

One of the drivers behind this growth in the arrival of bigger cruise ships over the course of this year and next is increased passenger demand for more Alaska cruises.

From 2019, Cunard, Azamara and Viking Ocean will also be offering Alaskan itineraries from Vancouver.

“Viking’s first call into Vancouver will be with Viking Orion on 26 May 2019,” says Matt Grimes, Viking’s executive director for itinerary planning, nautical and technical operations. He explains that there are two main departure points for cruises sailing north to Alaska: Seattle and Vancouver.

“We have chosen Vancouver as the port is further north, giving our guests more time in port, and is well placed for us to scenic cruise the famed Inside Passage,” says Grimes.

Vancouver’s reputation as one of the world’s most popular cities, and the wide variety of things to do in and around the area, are two reasons behind Viking’s decision. “This offers our guests a strong pre/post cruise package whereby they can extend their stay before or after the city to experience the destination,” he says.

Ortega explains how the passenger demographic has changed over the years. Historically, 80% of passengers were from the US, but now that figure is 60% and the segment experiencing the highest growth is international passengers.

“When they come and sail out of Vancouver, they don’t just stay an average two to three nights, they stay a whole week in Vancouver and then travel around the province and do very expensive shore excursions,” she explains. “We see a lot of growth from the UK, Australia and Asia.

Future plans to cope with increasing capacity

With capacity requirements increasing, Ortega says that there are plans to build a new cruise terminal. As it’s in early stages there isn’t much information to share yet, but she says the port is “working with cruise lines customers and the industry to plan and accommodate for the future”.

“Facial recognition will also make the experience far better and faster.”

With bigger ships using the terminal at Canada Place, Ortega says that the team is discussing the possibility of a new terminal outside of the Burrard Inlet area. “In order to accommodate larger vessels starting to come into the market, we’re looking into the feasibility of building another facility outside of this area,” she explains.

She also tells us that passengers get pre-cleared by US customs officers in Vancouver, so they have US and Canadian customs officers working out of the cruise terminals. “We’ve already installed automated passport control kiosks, which really helps add capacity in terms of processing guests, but the next step is definitely a mobile passport clearance app, which is already in existence in other US ports,” she says, adding that facial recognition will also make the experience far better and faster.

Working together with Alaska

Matt Grimes

Executive director, itinerary planning, nautical and technical operations, Viking Cruises.

Credit: Viking Ocean

Ortega is hopeful that growth will continue and feels that some is going to come from the Asian market, noting that Vancouver Airport has increased direct flights to key cities in China, Japan and Korea. With Shanghai’s port expanding and welcoming around 3 million passengers a year in 2017, making it one of the world’s top five busiest cruise ports, the Asian cruise market is taking off and Ortega feels that Vancouver will experience organic growth as this trend continues.

“Capacity is not only something that we’re planning for here – as the cruises get marketed as Alaska cruises, Alaska is also working on its capacity constraints,” she says. “We’re working together to meet demand and accommodate that growth.”

Carmen Ortega

Manager of trade development at Vancouver Fraser Port.

Credit: Port of Vancouver

The Canada Place terminal is just a 15-minute walk from downtown Vancouver, offering fast and easy access to one of the most highly-rated cities in the world. Credit: Port of Vancouver 

In 2018, the Port of Vancouver is welcoming 895,000 passengers on 241 vessels – 7% growth in passenger volume over 2017. Credit: Port of Vancouver 

Cover image credit: Royal Caribbean, SBW-Photo