By Tom Peters

When traditional family vacations begin to wind down in late summer, things start to heat up on the Halifax waterfront.

It’s the busiest time of the year for Halifax’s cruise industry when the majority of the port’s cruise ship visits are scheduled.

“September and October are our peak season with around 68 per cent to 70 per cent of our cruise business coming at that time of the year, so it brings additional revenue for your typical tourism venues that would, by early September, no longer be getting the regular land-based vacations,” said Cathy McGrail, Director of Cruise and Corporate Communications for the Halifax Port Authority. “It’s a nice added bonus for the community and retail sector here in the city and for the tourism sector as well,” she said.

This year’s cruise season has been strong. The Port of Halifax will entertain approximately 134 vessel calls and approximately 240,000 passengers. Although the vessel count is down slightly over past years, the passenger numbers are up as the ships get bigger.

“We are seeing more of the bigger ships coming in,” said McGrail. The Norwegian Breakaway of the Norwegian Cruise Line first arrived in July with just under 4,000 passengers, and Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, which is scheduled to make four calls to Halifax this season, has a passenger capacity of 4,180 and is the largest vessel scheduled to call Halifax this year.

“The Anthem is a brand new ship and made its inaugural call here (Sept. 1),” said McGrail. “It is one of three sister ships and is based out of New York.”

On a smaller scale but just as exciting for the cruise industry, Viking Cruise Lines will bring its new ocean cruise vessel, Viking Star, into Halifax on October 9. Viking Star had its maiden voyage in May of 2015. The ultra-luxury ship accommodates 930 passengers.

One of the main environmental aspects of many of these new vessels is their ability to hook up to shore power allowing them to turn off their engines while in port resulting in reduced carbon emissions.

“This year we are continuing to see strong usage of our shore power system. We have approximately 30 possible connections this year,” McGrail said, adding that there are no immediate plans to add a second power outlet as the demand does not warrant it at this time. However, if demand grows, a second outlet would become a consideration.

Overall, the economic impact of the Halifax cruise industry has been estimated at $104 million annually. It all bodes well for waterfront retail outlets and the business is especially welcomed during the late summer and fall peak season.

Gordon Stevens, President of The Uncommon Group, which owns and operates the Uncommon Grounds coffee shops and has three businesses on the waterfront, Sugah! Confectionary, Rum Runners Rum Cake and Lost Cod Clothing Co., said the extended cruise season “really allows it to feel like summer just continues into September and October.”

Stevens said that over the course of the year the cruise industry amounts to less than 10 per cent of his overall revenues but in September and October it accounts for about 25 per cent to 35 per cent of revenues.

But all cruise passengers don’t come to spend.

“After a few years you get to understand which (cruise) lines mean business for us and which lines won’t really make much of a difference but no question, they are a big impact and allow us to extend our season greatly,” he said.

Stevens said the main theme of his retail stores is to produce and promote Nova Scotia products.

“The rum cakes are done on-site as well as the chocolates. The clothing is all vintage Nova Scotia companies, brands, sports teams, etc. We are really trying to pass along that piece of history and nostalgia in the products we produce and sell,” he said.

Justin Zinck, in charge of marketing events and retail at Garrison Brewing Co., located in the Annex building near the port’s cruise pavilion, said the extended cruise season makes a big difference. “It does amazing things for us,” explained Zinck. “It allows us to keep business open (year-round) when people aren’t necessarily looking to drink as much beer as in September, July and August and it also helps on the retail side of things.”

Ambassatours Gray Line, which operates bus tours, boat tours of the harbour and a restaurant, is another benefactor of a longer cruise season.

“We’re very fortunate that the cruise trips to our region were first promoted as ‘leaf watch’ cruises. It was a key differentiator for us in the early days of developing cruise markets and has resulted in the successful and steady growth of fall arrivals here,” said Ambassatours’ Communications and Charter Manager Terri McCulloch. “After the regular tourists have left in August, the arrival of the cruise lines infuses an additional two months of vitality into local businesses. There is no question that this extension of the season into the shoulder months is very welcome by our industry,” she said. “In our case, at Murphy’s, in the restaurant, gift shops and tour boats, as well as with the coaches at Ambassatours, we are very appreciative of these extra nine weeks of business that the cruise lines deliver to our doors,” she said.

Jennifer Angel, acting president and CEO of the Halifax Waterfront Development Corp. said the extended cruise season from early spring until late fall is certainly important to the several small businesses which operate on the waterfront. “It has had a wonderful impact on the quality of businesses we have been able to attract and the level of activity,” she said.

Waterfront Development is trying to focus development around authentic Nova Scotia experiences, according to Angel, and the intention is to ensure the Halifax waterfront, which welcomed 2.4 million visitors last year, does not become a ‘tourist trap.’

“We are trying to build for locals first, and if we get that right and it is an authentic Nova Scotia experience, we know that we will win the hearts and minds of our visitors. So the cruise industry, obviously a massive economic driver for Nova Scotia, is also an important opportunity to introduce the waterfront to prospective future visitors. This is our first impression opportunity because often times the stops are fairly brief but we treat those visits as our opportunity to make a great first impression,” she said, adding that there have been many business success stories that started on the waterfront and directly benefitted from the cruise industry.

The port’s busiest cruise day is expected to be Sept. 15 when three cruise ships will bring approximately 8,500 passengers plus crew. On Oct. 7, the port is expecting a five-ship day, an event that brings added excitement to the city.

An additional highlight of the cruise season this year was the awarding of the Second Annual Samuel Cunard Prize for Vision, Courage and Creativity to John Risley, President and CEO of Clearwater Fine Foods.

Cunard Lines, along with the Canadian Maritime Heritage Foundation and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, made the presentation aboard the Queen Mary 2 during a Halifax port call on Sept. 10.

The award was first presented in 2015 in celebration of the first Transatlantic crossing of the Britannia 175 years earlier. The award is presented in Halifax in recognition of the birthplace of Sir Samuel Cunard, the founder of the company.