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Canada/New England ports hash out expedition opportunities, challenges

Québec City in winter, where the deep-snow months are warmed by festivals and winter sports
Canada/New England has the opportunity to develop expedition cruising but it will take 'a lot of effort.'

So said Mark Ittel, partner/SVP, ports & maritime, Bermello Ajamil & Partners, at this week's Canada/New England Cruise Symposium in Québec City, where the big news was Ponant's bold move to introduce Canada's first winter cruises in early 2025.

'There's a lot of opportunity in the Saint Lawrence to develop these types of adventures,' Ittel told symposium delegates, adding: 'There's a lot of effort required to make it successful with those ports that are going to be part of the itinerary patterns. You have to dig in over the next two years before Ponant gets here to make it work.'

Plenty of winter draws

There's no lack of winter activities in Québec, at least, where the deep-snow months are warmed by festivals and many people participate in outdoor sports like ice fishing, skiing, snow-mobiling, snowshoeing, tobogganing, snow rafting/tubing and more.

Ittel sees 'a lot of potential itineraries' for polar ships repositioning between the Arctic and Antarctica, with the incorporation of the French territory of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon for turnarounds (and satisfying Canadian cabotage) plus ports in Newfoundland and Labrador, where expedition ships already call in the warmer months.

28 'obtainable' polar-class ships

B&A counts more than 90 polar-class cruise ships in the global business, of which 28 may be actually 'obtainable' for the region, Ittel said, adding the St. Lawrence has no specific requirements to operate polar-class vessels.

The 28 he identified belong to 11 brands. They represent a total of 7,300 berths with an average of 261 berths.

Ittel listed the top opportunities for expedition growth on the Saint Lawrence as Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Hurtigruten, Viking and Silversea, among others.

Viking's clout

Viking has been key to updating and opening warm-weather expedition cruises in the wider region with Viking Polaris and Viking Octantis in the Great Lakes. The ships were specifically designed to fit through the Welland Canal to access the region. 

Niche ports

Looking at the wider Canada/New England area, Sarah Rumsley, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Cruise Association, pointed to more than 30 niche ports that could be of interest to expedition operators including Yarmouth (Nova Scotia) and St. Anthony (Newfoundland).

One of Atlantic Canada's bigger ports, Sydney, bagged calls from Ponant in its pioneering winter itineraries.

Nicole MacAulay, manager of cruise, Port of Sydney, whose company also manages the niche port of Louisbourg, said expedition operators often prefer smaller ports with fewer services because they provide a more intimate experience. And those lines are happy to operate Zodiac landings.

For example, Viking asked for Louisbourg instead of Sydney.

Stimulating local development

Paul Pepe, manager, tourism, Thunder Bay, Ontario on Lake Superior's north shore, said his area welcomes expedition ships such as Viking's, which began calling in 2022. They help stimulate economic activity and development, such as a new science center and art museum.

This message was echoed by numerous destinations in the Great Lakes contingent which participated for the first time at the symposium.

Maine, too, has an array of small ports ready to welcome expedition ships, according to Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine.

Lack of clarity on Zodiac landings

However, catering to the different needs of expedition cruising is a challenge, ports and suppliers said. And there's uncertainty about the whether lines are allowed to land their Zodiacs at US and Canadian ports.

Neil McKenzie, CEO, Yarmouth & Acadian Shores Association, said Yarmouth has official approval for Zodiacs from foreign-flag ships.

'We don't have tenders. We need them,' McKenzie said.

Stephen Burnett, executive director, Great Lakes Cruise Association, said it's a 'good idea' to use shoreside vendors where available.

Viking's Lia Da Silva Müller, director, land operations - ocean, said her company prioritizes the use of local equipment.

Off-season challenges

Tasha Patey, director, cruise development, Ambassators Gray Line, noted expedition ships arriving outside the peak season pose challenges because not all attractions are open and it can be tough to arrange staff and transport.

'We need to change our way of thinking'

'We need to change our way of thinking ... We need time to adapt,' added Manon Vigneux, president, Destinations North America, and partner, VDM Global DMC.

Yves Gilson, director, marketing & cruises at the Port of Montréal, said there's interest in developing expedition cruising but it's not easy for ports to work with kayaks, Zodiacs, submarines and helicopters.

Also, 'We need to have a local benefit,' Gilson said. 'Otherwise, what's the use of having berths and activities if ships are not using those?'