Muskrat Fails and Jive Cruise Ship Math


Cruise ship and big fiddle

Halifax Examiner publisher Tim Bousquet and CBC Newfoundland commentator Drew Brown are both saying things of interest to Cape Bretoners today.

Bousquet’s Morning File responds to the Cape Breton Post‘s front-page love letter to our “one millionth” cruise ship passenger (an apparently nice lady from Florida who seems to have been tackled by the CBRM Mayor and the Town Crier as she came down the gangplank). The Post doesn’t question the Port of Sydney’s estimate of the economic impact of this year’s cruise season:

The port is expecting 55 vessels with a total passenger capacity of 87,574 by the time the cruise season ends on Oct. 26.

It is 15 fewer ships compared to the 2015 season.

The port has estimated a $22 million economic impact from this year’s cruise season.

Bousquet is not so sure:

Yep, those 87,574 passengers are too cheap to tip their servers, but that’s only because they’re saving up their dough to throw it to the wind in Sydney: on average, according to the port, each passenger will spend $251 per day in Sydney…

How’d they come up with that $22 million figure? Science! There’s nothing self-serving about these economic impact reports, nope. Shut up, you, and do something quaint.

I know that $22 million also includes people who high-tail it out of Sydney to visit the Fortress of Louisbourg or tour the Cabot Trail, but I would also point out that all 87,574 passengers do not disembark in Sydney (and with annual revenues of about $1.5 million, the Port of Sydney is clearly not collecting a fortune in fees from the cruise ships) which means that $22 million spending spree is the work of a hardy band of land-crazed shop-a-holics.

And before I am accused of being “negative” and “hating the cruise industry,” let me say that, while I would personally rather spend a week lying face down in a ditch than take a cruise, I recognize that cruises are a source of great pleasure to many people and I would not dream of depriving those people of their pleasure. I also recognize that the industry benefits Cape Breton and I like seeing crowds of people on Charlotte Street, even when they are stopping me to ask how anyone can afford the coffee at Tim Horton’s with “your crazy taxes.”

But I am a stickler for accuracy, so I would like to see the math behind that $22 million figure.

I went to the web site of the Holland America Line (whose ship the Veendam will be our most frequent visitor this season, calling 20 times) to see what I could find out about the price of day excursions in and around Sydney. I discovered that the least expensive are “between $1 and $50” and include the walking tour of Downtown Sydney and the Big Pink Sydney Highlights bus tour.

The most expensive are “$151 or more” and include the “Bras d’or Lakes: Heart of the Island” tour (the Bell Museum and the Highland Village) and the “Cape Breton: A Cultural Exploration” tour (the Highland Village and Eskasoni).

The Norwegian Cruise Line, which also calls at Sydney, seems to offer similar excursions at similar prices–the most expensive is the Bell Museum/Highland Village tour at $159 USD ($206 CAN) for one adult. (Which is pretty steep, given that adult admission to the Highland Village is $11 and to the Bell Museum is $7.80 — $9 and $6.55, respectively, for seniors.)

As an aside, I would just add that reading the comments on the tours can be harrowing. Sydney gets a hard time, with people like Suzy from San Francisco summing us up this way:

“The port of call is very limited with very little to see. Walk into what they call a town and have a cup coffee. You will feel better! Part of the tour took us to the local hospital parking lot so we view their hospital. It was an older brick building of a couple of stories.”

Marl of San Diego is even harsher:

“Boring, Not worth the money. I wish I would have spent the day on the ship and enjoyed myself instead…”

And at least one visitor on the “Cultural Exploration” tour seemed to think Eskasoni was an “Indian Village” in the living museum sense, which must have made for an awkward hour or so for all involved.

The Cabot Trail also comes in for some bashing, dismissed as “a long bus ride with food stops” by Blackhawk of Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Smulkearns from Virginia even crapped on the food stops:

The nice (but not spectacular) scenery did not justify the long, boring bus ride. The tour guide talked constantly, but said very little of substance. He rambled and repeated himself over and over. There were very few stops along the way; one stop for a morning snack, one for lunch, and perhaps 3-4 five minute stops for pictures. Otherwise, we were on the very cold bus for 7 1/2 hours. Not being fans of mussels or seafood chowder, my husband and I ate ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch, which were adequate but certainly nothing special. This is one shore excursion that we regretted taking.”

I think we all know how thoroughly a sub-par ham and cheese can destroy a vacation, Smulkearns. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Generally, though, people seem to love the Fortress, the Miners’ Museum, the Highland Village and the fiddle music (especially the fiddle music, the concerts at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion win raves across the board). Sydney even comes in for some praise, for its “knowledgeable guides” and “oatcakes served with love.” But these excursions are booked through the cruise line and I have to guess the cruise line keeps a cut of those fees (passengers are permitted to book private tours, but as the boat won’t wait for them if they’re late returning and the cruise line will not be responsible for getting them to their next port of call, they have a strong incentive not to). It also seems to me that “more than $151” — the price of the most expensive excursions — doesn’t mean “$251,” because that would be a bit of a shock to the excursion-buyer’s system. But even if it did mean $251, every passenger on every boat would have to take the most expensive excursions to reach that $22 million total.

That sounds fishy to me.


Muskrat Love

I’ve been working on a couple of pieces lately that involve a similar sort of jive math (one being Nova Scotia’s foray into P3 school construction which doesn’t seem to have involved any math at all) and I think the Muskrat Falls project also falls within this category. Drew Brown’s analysis, besides being sharp and entertaining, is also a nice antidote to the cheerleading of the Cape Breton Post which also ran a Muskrat Falls story today, under the headline, “This year will be a very big year: Maritime Link project continues in Cape Breton.” In it, Emera Newfoundland and Labrador president and CEO Rick Janega states, “We are completely confident we will be able to meet our construction dates and our commissioning dates.”

A sidebar story focused on an event at Membertou during which Janega “recognized provincial contractors for their commitment to workplace diversity,” particularly their hiring of “women, aboriginal people, people with disabilities and visible minorities.” No stats were provided to back any of this up — Janega’s word on both subjects seem to be good enough for the Post.

Strange, then, to turn from the Post’s version of the project — on time and a boon to women and visible minorities — to Brown’s version, which you can watch for yourself, I’ll just say that the words “boondoggle,” “albatross” and “embarrassment” all feature prominently:

You should also check out Brown’s thoughts on the environmental issues surrounding the project, which echo those of Russell Wangersky (aka the best columnist in the Cape Breton Post) which you will find here .

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