Gastown businesses bouncing back one month into B.C. cruise ship season

Dozens of cruise ships have docked in downtown Vancouver, one month into the long-awaited cruise ship season.

At the Gifts and Things souvenir shop in the city’s Gastown neighbourhood, the mood is cheerful.

Sakura Hirama, the store manager, chalks it up to the return of cruise passengers.

“The cruise ships are definitely helping us keep our business alive,” she said.

The longstanding souvenir shop has always relied, understandably, on business from tourists. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the cruise ship industry in 2020, Hirama knew she had to pivot to keep the store from going under.

“We started carrying gifts that locals can purchase for Christmas and birthdays. Local people started coming to our store and that helped us a lot,” she explained.

The store now has regular customers who live and work nearby. On top of that, tourists have made a comeback. On Tuesday morning, the store was busy with out-of-towners seeking trinkets with “Vancouver” etched on them.

“Overall, there’s more feet on the street for sure,” said Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association. He says the influx is caused by several factors, including people returning to their workplaces, general tourism by car and plane, and the return of cruise ships.

A total of 310 ships are scheduled to dock at Canada Place by the end of October. The Port of Vancouver says each cruise ship contributes $3 million to the city’s economy. That’s welcome news for business owners in Gastown, where 47 shops closed down in the first two years of the pandemic.

“We’ve kind of filled all those spots, by some folks reopening - which is great - but also some new folks taking over,” said Wargolet.

However, the return of cruise ships is not quite the boon to business that it was prior to the pandemic. Cruise companies are following COVID-19 safety protocols, which means many of them are operating at reduced capacities and are not yet allowing unvaccinated people on board. Fewer passengers translates to fewer dollars being spent at local shops and restaurants.

In addition to that, Wargolet said ongoing problems with neighbourhood cleanliness and access are keeping locals, and their dollars, away from the area. The problem worsened over the pandemic, Wargolet said, to the point that residents held a community cleanup in late March. Dozens of people hosed down sidewalks and picked up trash throughout the neighbourhood.

“The City of Vancouver has really let Gastown deteriorate in many ways,” said Wargolet. “The good news is we’ve made some progress. We have some repairs happening in the next few weeks on some of the sidewalks, but there’s more to be done.”

Hirama told CTV News her sales are not quite at pre-pandemic levels but have gotten very close since the cruise season began in early April. Despite things appearing to return back to normal, she said the souvenir shop will make its new business model permanent, and continue catering to Vancouver residents.

“Without them, we couldn’t have survived the pandemic,” she said. “I really, really appreciate their support.”