About That Second Berth…

My first reaction to the 2014 Sydney Cruise Market Assessment Report was: why are we talking about spending $20 million on a second berth and not talking about our ground transportation problem?

Cruise ship and big fiddle

Cruise ship docked in Sydney, N.S.

(My second reaction was—how do people who cannot actually write get into the report-writing business? Why would you not take a small portion of the fortune you charge for these things and hire a copy editor?)

But I digress.

The report was written by Miami-based consulting firm Bermello, Ajamil & Partners (ba, apparently) which, according to Memorial University (MUN) prof and cruise industry expert Ross Klein,“has advised a majority of major cruise ports in Canada.” Their advice, he says, “invariably includes expansion or redevelopment of port facilities.”

And sure enough, the report concludes that a second berth will be necessary in Sydney by 2015 to accommodate larger cruise ships. But – and here’s the interesting part – even these port-expansion enthusiasts don’t think a second berth alone is the answer:

…a second berth would likely increased [sic] the likelihood of large ship vessel traffic in the peak season, but must be coupled with the required upland accommodations to support and delivery [sic] a quality tourism product. On its own, this is not the only solution for Sydney.


The Wheels on the Bus

What the report is saying, in its long-winded, chart-pocked, semi-literate way, is that Sydney is boring and there are not enough buses to take passengers to the more interesting places.

Port of Sydney N.S. update brochure

Artist’s rendition of second cruise berth.

Therefore, if we build a $20 million second berth and succeed in attracting larger cruise ships – while, it should be noted, driving away some smaller cruise ships that have no desire to be in port at the same time as the bigger ships – there would be nothing for passengers to do in downtown Sydney and no way to get many of them to the more interesting sites in Louisbourg, Baddeck and Iona. Here’s ba’s summary of our “ground transportation” situation:

There is a logistical coach issue that affects all of the Maritime regional cruise ports to varying degrees during the peak cruise season (peak port-of-call days) in the months of September and October. Due to the number of larger cruise vessels berthing simultaneously on given weekdays delivering a greater number of cruise passengers to the ports there is a lack of large coaches within the region. They must be distributed based upon demand. However, in some cases there is a lack of required capacity to offer the amounts of seats requested by the cruise lines while in port. This is exacerbated by moving coaches from their hubs in Halifax and Moncton to outlying ports in Sydney and Charlottetown to meet the cruise vessel demands. Operator costs increases [sic] due to the drive distance and the use of the coaches for half day vs. full day tours (if this occurs).

This is an issue that we have to discuss before we spend $20 million on that second berth. Will it attract enough additional passengers to encourage operators to add additional buses? Surely the operators could tell us what level of passenger traffic would be necessary to justify the purchase or hire of a new bus (if hiring one is even possible during peak cruise ship season in the Maritimes).


Let There Be Life

And then there’s the question of what all these additional passengers will do in our “downtown core.”

Sydney itself must also be addressed. Allowing for the development of interactive experiences in the downtown core that can become part of a tour package or be experienced by independent passengers wandering the downtown area would provide for a successful Sydney product. There must be life brought to the downtown area.

(“There must be life brought to the downtown area.” Ten bucks says the author writes Game of Thrones fan fiction in his spare time).

What ba is saying is, “You have to figure out a way for cruise lines to make more money in your sad little downtown or they will go to PEI.” Because making money is what it’s all about — “excursions” are a big source of income for the cruise lines which, according to Klein, take commissions of anywhere between 50% and 90% from tour operators.

We really need to think carefully about this: does it make sense to focus on developing our downtown core in such a way that cruise lines can make more money from it? Or should we take other factors — like, oh, I don’t know, the quality of life of Sydney’s residents — into account?

I do not know what this chart represents.

I do not know what this chart represents.

And the cruise industry isn’t just picking on Sydney, it’s got some ideas to improve even the tourist attractions it likes:

[E]ach of the venues should be deliverable in the peak fall season. (Louisbourg, Gaelic College, Highland Village, Heritage Park, Goat Island.)

The cruise lines don’t care how much that costs or whether it really makes sense from the point of view of the operators, they want to charge passengers a lot of money to visit these places and we should accommodate that or they’ll go to PEI.


Other Uses

One of the most striking recommendations in the report is this one:

The Port should contemplate additional uses for a new pier facility to allow for a broader payback application. Uses may include bulk and specialty cargo, mega-yacht, naval or coast guard use and other uses that may be local in nature.

Isn’t that the kind of traffic we’re already trying, without notable success, to bring to our existing wharf? Why would we have any better luck attracting it to a second wharf? And isn’t Provincial Energy Ventures (PEV) supposed to be developing a bulk cargo pier? Would it appreciate the competition? Again, these are issues that need to be discussed.


Maybe, Likely, Possibly

The report hedges every statement about future cruise ship traffic — ships will “more likely” be deployed to the region, capacity “will likely” come back, the fall “is likely” to continue to be the busiest season in the Maritimes — that’s because the authors are not psychic. Don’t take my word for it, read what they say themselves:

It is difficult to project the cruise lines’ growth for a region or Port over the mid-term (3 to 5 years) as for the most part lines themselves rarely know their deployment outside of this time period due to outside forces and market trends. To project out over a 15 year period is especially difficult and filled with numerous assumptions. However, this exercise does provide a perspective of the potential market over the period should all of the fundamentals be maintained in the industry and region over the period.

Shorter version: we have no idea what’s going to happen over the next 15 years but you’re paying us a lot of money so we’ll guess.

At least we know that should we gamble and spend $20 million on a second berth, the cruise lines will have our backs:

A second berth is a significant investment. The cruise industry has no desire to pay for this through additional fees.

Or not. (Which reminds me, we need to know what kind of fees the cruise lines are paying the Port of Sydney now—are we giving them any kind of special deals? That’s also information that we need to make an informed decision.)

It’s time for a serious, detailed conversation about the pros and cons of constructing a second berth. The Port of Sydney needs to make its business case to the public – not to its own board (don’t even get me started), not in an in camera session of council. It needs to make its case in an open session of council under close questioning by our councilors.

Why? I’ll let Professor Klein explain:

Investment made on infrastructure for cruise ships is money that could be invested elsewhere with perhaps a greater social or economic benefit—thus the importance of ensuring the money is well spent.



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