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FEATURE STORY: How will cruises impact Prince Rupert’s future?

Cruises have immense potential to revitalize Prince Rupert, but also come with stumbling blocks


Cruise ships bring cash, and lots of it. For a city such as Prince Rupert facing a huge infrastructure deficit, funnelling thousands of potential customers into the small coastal community could be the boost it desperately needs to get back on its feet.

But catering to the international cruise market comes with plenty of baggage.

After a summer during which Prince Rupert doubled its cruise ship visitors from 40,000 in 2022 to 81,000 in 2023, many are hopeful the only way is up for the cruise industry on the North Coast. Many businesses in Prince Rupert have seen their profits increase after a challenging two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cruise ship business is immense. According to Transport Canada, the industry annually brings in $4 billion to Canada’s economy, while 30,000 jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the industry.

In November 2022, the Prince Rupert Port Authority (PRPA) signed a 10-year agreement with Global Ports Holding (GPH), which operates 30 cruise ship terminals in 17 countries. The agreement marked a new dawn for the cruise industry in Prince Rupert, first introduced in 2004 when the Northland Cruise Terminal in Prince Rupert’s waterfront Cow Bay area was built by the PRPA.

Having a successful cruise industry in Prince Rupert is a key component of fostering diverse facets at the port for the PRPA, according to Ken Veldman, vice president of public affairs and sustainability for the port. Veldman said the cruise industry brought in approximately $7.5 million to the municipality and will be central to the redevelopment of infrastructure in the town.

“The introduction of cruises in 2004 was essentially the impetus for the initial development of this entire Cow Bay area as a waterfront,” said Veldman.

“For cruise development, there is a very good proof point right here in Prince Rupert as to the knock-on effect of being able to build livable community-type elements that aren’t just applicable to the cruise industry, but also a benefit to the community itself. From a resident’s perspective, a nice place to visit makes a nice place to live.”

The municipality is wary of the many issues that could come out of increasing cruise traffic, though Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond believes the city is fortunate to have a unique industry.

“We’re lucky to have the cruises. Any other community all up and down Highway 16 would kill to have this industry, we just need to make sure we do it right,” Pond said.

Pond said the city is hoping to transform the downtrodden downtown area, which has seen a string of abandoned buildings hamper its ability to charm visitors.

“As we rebuild our community, it will naturally be easier to navigate. If people are coming up Third Avenue out of Cow Bay, they walk past a lot of closed businesses,” Pond said.

“It’s an area of town that nobody is proud of, but as the community goes through this rebirth, all of that will become inviting. It won’t be tomorrow, and it won’t be next year.”

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New horizons

Increasing the number of passengers is something the municipality is hoping for, though it is well aware of the many issues it could encounter in the future.

“If it’s done right, and certainly that’s our intention, what we will see is a fairly significant increase in the number of visitors. We are working now to implement a plan that will have measures attached to it so that we can understand when we’re reaching capacity,” Pond said.

“That’s not a hard number, it’s a measure of quality of life on all kinds of fronts. For example, when you want to walk on your favorite trail, is it overrun with visitors or is it still a place that you want to go to?”

Keeping Prince Rupert authentic is important to most long-time residents and business owners, who are wary of becoming a town where most businesses are seasonal and owned by cruise companies themselves.

Two years ago, Blair Mirau, CEO of the non-profit group Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society, jumped on the opportunity to offer guided walking tours to cruise passengers after an operator retired three weeks before the season started. Having seen the development of the cruise industry in Prince Rupert, Mirau is wary of the potential challenges, yet excited at the prospects of tapping into the billion-dollar Alaska cruise industry.

Bob’s on the Rocks, a popular waterfront fish and chips restaurant, is owned by the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society. Mirau said that cruise ship passengers flocked to the restaurant, making up a large portion of its summer sales.

In the experience of Mirau, who has also served as a city councillor in Prince Rupert, having local tour guides is one of the best ways to impress cruise ship passengers, who may be tired of excursions led by seasonal employees with limited attachment to the community.

“The best thing that any of our tour guides can say is, ‘I’m from here. I live in Prince Rupert, I own a home here and I’ve been here for X amount of years.’ That’s music to cruise passengers’ ears,” Mirau said.

Port General Manager for GPH Kevin D’Costa said the group is trying to emphasize the unique geographic area Prince Rupert is situated in, the Great Bear Rainforest. D’Costa, who has worked in the cruise industry around the world, said that Prince Rupert has untapped potential to become a top-of-the-line destination, and the foundations are currently being put in place.

“The things that Prince Rupert could really improve on are, we are not doing justice to local culture. We are not doing justice to the beauty that we have around here,” D’Costa said.

“That is really what we are trying to put our focus on and elevate that experience, to really show the people that you are actually in a unique ecosystem.”

D’Costa also agreed that passengers enjoyed the authenticity of Prince Rupert’s businesses and the friendly nature of locals, especially compared to some ports in Alaska that have centred their communities around the cruise industry.

“They enjoyed the authenticity of the people, the authenticity of the place. There’s no Diamonds International and all these shops where you can’t really differentiate which port you’re in because they’re all the same,” he said.

“You go to all these ports, you see the same stores everywhere it doesn’t really separate the port, but then when they come to Prince Rupert, everything is local, everything is real. The people are genuine.”


While the 81,000 cruise passengers Prince Rupert saw in 2023 was certainly high for the city, Ketchikan, a town of 8,000 people on the southern tip of the Alaska border, sees approximately 1.5 million cruise passengers every year.

Like Prince Rupert, Ketchikan has seen industry come and go, with its pulp mill closing in 1997.

After a two-year lull due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alaskan cruise industry has exploded once again, with visitors around the world eager to explore the beautiful northern landscapes.

According to the American market research group Future Market Insights, the Alaskan market was valued at $1.87 billion USD in 2022, while the group estimates it will grow to $2.51 billion USD by 2032.

D’Costa labelled the global cruise industry as the fastest-growing tourism industry in the world.

David Kiffer, mayor of Ketchikan, said he and the community have lamented not using COVID as a time to rethink the way the city deals with its passenger population.

“We didn’t take the steps we probably should have in terms of ensuring that we can continue to have an acceptable level of growth,” Kiffer said.

“We have obviously seen the industry jump dramatically in the last 20 years and arguably it’s nearing a point where capacity becomes an issue.”

Pond said he took a delegation of city staff to Ketchikan to learn more about how Prince Rupert can take advantage of cruise ships while keeping local residents happy.

One of the attractions of cruise lines is the relatively cost-effective packages offered on big brand cruise lines, with passengers able to see the beauties of the B.C. West Coast and Alaska without breaking their budget.

A 17-day “Ultimate Alaska” trip with the Royal Princess Cruise line would cost potential passengers under $3,000 to go all the way up the West Coast, starting in Seattle and reaching Anchorage.

Not all cruise ships are the same size, and not all passengers have the same amount of disposable income to spend in the community. According to Mirau, smaller fleets usually bring bigger spenders, while major cruise lines often have more frugal passengers.

Currently, the ships that come through Prince Rupert are often on their way back after being to Alaska, meaning passengers might not be as free-spending as they were in other ports.

“If the future for Prince Rupert looks like getting all the spillover from Ketchikan, all of these gigantic 3,000-person ships, that’s going to cause some discomfort if it’s going to be the customers that only spend $15 to $50 off the ship versus some of these pocket cruise ships spending hundreds of dollars off the ship,” Mirau said.

Infrastructure woes

For small cities, thousands of cruise ship passengers can put immense strains on the municipality’s infrastructure. Between 30 and 40 crossing guards are hired each year in Ketchikan to manage pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic within the city while ships are in port.

There are also sometimes up to seven ambulance calls on a busy cruise day, according to Kiffer.

Ensuring the city is compensated for resources is a priority for the municipality, according to Pond. He said Prince Rupert’s emergency services and hospital already saw the impact of an increase in cruise passengers this past summer and wants to ensure the city sets some capacity boundaries.

“We want to make sure that the services to locals aren’t diminished in any way during that extra busy time,” said Pond.

During a Dec. 11 city council meeting, Prince Rupert Councillor Teri Forster asked PRPA representatives what increased cruise traffic would look like for taxpayers, and whether they would have to bear the cost of visitors using the city’s infrastructure.

While Veldman would not promise any kind of subsidies to the city for potential infrastructure strain, he said that conversation could occur in the future.

“We have had initial discussions with the city… if there are additional costs to the city that’s going to be a discussion we’re open to having,” Veldman said at the council meeting.

Money, money, money

As a significant percentage of passengers are American, most do not carry Canadian currency, and there are not many convenient places to exchange money, something that business owners say annoys potential customers.

Many taxis in Prince Rupert are cash only, another point of frustration for tourists. There is also infrequent bus service in the area, meaning visitors often have to walk up the steep hill to access downtown, which can be too much for some passengers with mobility challenges.

Communication between the PRPA and local businesses could be improved so that owners could prepare for staffing requirements, according to Ted Sylvester, owner of Breakers Pub in Cow Bay. Sylvester said there were occasions when his business brought in extra staff to cater to a scheduled cruise arrival, only for no ship to arrive.

In other cases, Sylvester said businesses were not alerted when two ships were in port, which also affected the bar’s staffing.

Breakers does not only see an influx of cruise tourists, but also visitors in town to take advantage of the world-class fishing Prince Rupert has to offer. For the city to continue to attract tourists of any industry, it needs to maintain and improve existing infrastructure, according to Sylvester.

Most cruise ship passengers do not get far once they venture down Third Avenue, according to Ansen Norgaard, owner of Ansens Consignment and Hermit House Antiques. Ansens Consignment is on the far-end of Third Avenue, a 20-minute walk from the Northland Terminal.

“At the clothing store [Ansens Consignment], we get virtually no cruise ship passengers at all. They start walking down Third [Avenue], they see the rubble of buildings and they turn around,” said Norgaard.

While many tourists enjoy the authenticity of Prince Rupert’s stores, both Mirau and Norgaard said plenty of passengers want a simple souvenir to show they were in Canada. Norgaard, who has set up his consignment shop at the container market adjacent to the cruise terminal, said that while cruise passengers were not very interested in his curated clothing, they loved cheap merchandise that could be found in gift shops across the country.

“They’re not here to support local businesses, they’re here to be on a cruise ship. And usually it’s a budget cruise ship, so they’re not spending a huge amount of money,” said Norgaard.

“They want something with Canada flags on it. I had a bunch of key chains, I paid $1 for them and sold them for $4, and all of those sold out. Nothing else did.”

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Environmental concerns

Cruises are often criticized for being one of the most environmentally damaging modes of travel causing concern about the local marine ecosystem.

For example, Carnival Cruise Line, one of the largest cruise operators in the world and owner of many major Alaskan fleets, has been found guilty of illegal dumping dating back to 1993. In 2019, the multinational corporation was forced to pay $20 million after being found guilty in the United States for illegal waste dumping and attempting to cover up their crimes. They were also hit with a massive $40 million fine for illegal dumping in 2016.

Transport Canada implemented more comprehensive regulations for dumping in Canadian waters in June 2023, which now means cruise ships could face a $250,000 fine for discharging greywater and sewage within three nautical miles of the Canadian coast, while cruise lines are now required to strengthen the treatment of greywater and sewage between three and 12 nautical miles from Canadian shores.

While the new regulations could go a long way in mitigating the environmental impacts of cruise ships in Canada, critics have pointed to gaps in the laws, with scrubber system discharge, which often includes harmful pollutants, excluded from the rules.

Environmentalists have also criticized the laws, pointing to a lack of oversight from regulatory bodies to ensure cruise ships are following the new wastewater rules.

Mirau said that while he agreed the environmental implications of cruises can be bad, the ships would be coming to the region anyway.

“Ultimately, it’s up to international, Canadian and American authorities to better regulate cruises. I mean, everyone can tell the environmental footprint is immense,” he said.

“In Prince Rupert’s case, even if… we said no to every single cruise ship, it does nothing to change the fact that every single cruise ship is going to transit through these waters anyways on their way to Alaska.”


While keeping Prince Rupert an authentic destination, having investment into the community from cruise companies would ensure they come back the next season, according to Pond.

“What you want, ideally is for the cruise ship companies to be making some investment in your community, so they have a reason to come back,” Pond said.

“It’s a matter of working with the cruise lines and working with local businesses to say, ‘how can we grow this out responsibly… how do we assure ourselves that it’s got longevity, that it’s predictable enough that local people can make the kinds of investments that are necessary.’”

Teresa Lee, owner of multiple hotels and restaurants around Prince Rupert, said she would like Prince Rupert to put its best foot forward to attract cruises. She also said that having so many visitors in town is a pleasure, and she enjoys meeting new people and welcoming them to town.

With only three major cruise ports on the B.C. coast, Prince Rupert has gotten the reputation that ships only come to clear customs. All cruise ships have to clear customs when they enter Canadian waters between Washington State and Alaska.

D’Costa said this is an attitude he would like to shake from Prince Rupert, which he said has the potential to compete with any port along the West Coast.

“Anytime you leverage a situation, so take for example people would say ‘oh we can do this and this because we have a great exchange rate,’” D’Costa said.

“I see that as a very, very weak platform for you to approach, whatever you’re thinking. Why don’t you instead take the option of, ‘here’s what we have to offer.’”

D’Costa said that while the cruise industry is growing, it is also getting much more competitive, with destinations constantly needing to prove their worth to cruise providers.

“The traveller is now becoming also very unforgiving… mediocrity is not an option,” he said.

Some popular destinations in Prince Rupert include the North Pacific Cannery in Port Edward, the Museum of Northern British Columbia, the trolley tours of Prince Rupert and grizzly bear boat tours, offered by Prince Rupert Adventure Tours.

The Lax Süülda Container Market was a particularly positive addition according to Pond, who noticed many residents in addition to tourists shopping while the seasonal market was open.

Mirau said the nature-based tours offered by the society should be built upon, with zip lines a particularly interesting proposition.

While the average cruise ship does not have time to explore the beautiful stretch of Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Terrace, D’Costa said GPH has already successfully trialed chartered excursions where small cruise ships stay overnight in Prince Rupert, then passengers depart the Northwest by plane from Terrace.

D’Costa sees this as an increasingly viable option in the future.

Mixed reviews

Visitors’ reviews of Prince Rupert are certainly mixed. While some on Cruise Critic, a well-known cruise review website, admired the natural beauty of Prince Rupert, many pointed out a lack of activities and decrepit downtown areas.

Popular website cruisemummy listed Prince Rupert as the worst-rated port to stop at in the world, which it says is based on thousands of reviews.

“Visitors describe the downtown area as ‘lacklustre,’ with only a handful of shops that barely pique interest. The highlight of the town for many was a visit to familiar chain stores such as Safeway and 7-Eleven,” read the British blog site.

“The stark description of the downtown as ‘skidrowish’ paints a rather uninviting picture, while the lack of fun activities and the early closure of stores add to the frustration of visitors.”

D’Costa said the article was misinformed and outdated, and refuted the rankings made on cruisemummy.

While cruisemummy’s rankings might not be very flattering, D’Costa said a survey of Carnival Corp staff found the stop in Prince Rupert delightful, voting it the best destination along the Alaska cruise route.

Cruise lines have been impressed with the port’s ability to adapt to any challenges thrown at it, according to Veldman. He said this is proof the city can grow as a destination.

“Were there issues? Absolutely there were issues, there are always issues. But you know what? We really developed a reputation with the lines in particular being able to solve the issues,” Veldman said.

“So there was a lot of development I think of that reputation with the cruise lines, who at the end of the day are really the customers that are being served.”

After the 2023 season, Prince Rupert earned the reputation as an accessible destination, according to D’Costa. He also said the use of tents throughout the terminal’s surrounding area was useful to combat the inevitable rainy days.

For D’Costa, if all aspects of Prince Rupert, from residents and businesses to City Hall and the PRPA work together, it has the potential to reach new heights.

“If there’s anything that frustrates me, it is to see tremendous potential and the people that are there don’t see it, or are just choosing to not see it. I think we should stop waiting for someone else to pick up the stick and pick up the stick,” D’Costa said.

“It is a world-class destination for sure… the bones are here. Everything can be done.”

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About the Author: Seth Forward, Local Journalism Initiative

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