An investment of $15.5 million to build a new pier and welcome center in Charlottetown harbor resulted in visits from the world’s largest cruise ship.

The Prince Edward Island port renovated and lengthened its pier so the port could handle mega-cruise ships, something that the new Ocean gateway facility in Portland lacks.

Royal Caribbean International’s Explorer of the Seas made a total of four stops in Charlottetown during the late summer early fall season.

This large cruise ship carries a total of 3,100 passengers and 1,100 crew. It is 1,021 feet long and 137,308 gross tons.

This boost to the tourism industry in the city was made possible when Transport Canada transferred the ownership of the port to the Charlottetown Harbor Authority Inc., (CHAI) in 2005.

However, at the time of the transfer, the berth was not big enough to accommodate cruise vessels in a safe manner, according to Les Parsons, CEO of the Charlottetown Harbor Authority; “Plans were made to extend the berth up to about 250 meters [820 feet]. But because of rising costs, it was scaled down to 184 meters [604 feet],” he says.

Construction started in the spring of 2006 and was not completely finished until the spring of 2008.

Parsons says weather was one factor, as well as a number of environmental approvals that were necessary. “There were some time frames where dredging couldn’t occur when the oyster spat was on,” says Parsons.

The extension was done with concrete cribs and sheet steel piling that will allow for future expansions if resources become available. The final work was done in May of this year, although the wharf was usable last year for some cruise lines around the end of September. “It wasn’t totally finished, so it wasn’t the best of circumstances,” says Parsons.

Notwithstanding the regular wharf traffic of self-unloading gravel barges and oil tankers, Parsons says cruise ships, such as the Maasdam from the Holland American Line were able to come in the past, but he points out that the berth was crooked. “There was a big bow or angle in the sheet steel piling, so it wasn’t safe in terms of a flat surface,” he says.

Funding of the project was complicated. Parsons explains: “As part of he negotiations with Transport Canada, CHIA was provided a grant of $19 million to run the port on an ongoing basis. The money was intended for repairs and operations only,” explains Parsons. He says when the expansion came along; these monies could only be used for repair work.

Hence, of the $14 million spent on wharf repairs and expansion, the repair work was calculated at 52.9 percent. “CHAI invested $7.5 million of these funds in the total wharf repair/expansion. However, this investment was the repair work only,” notes Parsons. He says because of this stipulation, “There was a balancing act.”

During the planning for the repair/expansion work Infrastructure Canada gave an additional grant of $6.5 million ($4.5 million federal and $2 million provincial).

There was an additional grant of $1.5 million to pay for repairs to the shed for the cruise welcome and events area. That money came from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, says Parsons.

With the high number of passengers in all cruise ship stops at the Charlottetown wharf, Parsons says the city may see a round number of 69,000 passengers and 39 ships this summer and fall.

Parsons says the CHAI has budgeted this year to receive over $400,000 from cruise ship business. “This is very significant and there is also a fair number of barge traffic which could generate…maybe $125,00 to $150,000 in revenue.”

Kim Green CEO of the Charlottetown Tourism Association says in terms of people who bought shore excursions, “They are buying shore excursions in record numbers.”

Those who did not buy shore excursions were on their own. “We had quite a time trying to find taxi’s for everyone,” says Green. She points out that shops on the waterfront and in and near Olde Charlottetown, double their Sunday business when a cruise ship is in port.

Although a news story reported that the Explorer of the Seas has cancelled stops in Charlottetown for 2009, as well as Quebec City and Sydney, Nova Scotia, Green says cruise ships cancel stops all the time and the deciding factor for the cruise line seems to have been the high fuel costs.

“It will be interesting to see what the overall stops in Charlottetown will mean to the Explorer of the Seas. They do make a lot of money off these shore excursions,” she says.