Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

*logoSAGNUENAY, Quebec -- It happens at least once during every Seatrade Cruise Shipping convention: During the state of the industry panel, a top cruise executive tells the port representatives in the audience that if the ports want the ships to come, they must invest.

Invest in their piers, their infrastructure and everything surrounding their shore product.

The ports of Atlantic Canada and New England, many of them familiar faces at the annual Seatrade event, have heeded the cruise lines' call.

The cities along Canada's Saint Lawrence River alone are investing $156 million into their ports of call, creating new berths, shiny new cruise terminals and commercial enterprises to greet what they hope will be an onslaught of passengers.

Will this massive investment pay off?

The Canadian federal government, the Quebec provincial government and the local communities are sharing the cost of this venture, citing a mandate from the Quebec provincial government to become a major cruise destination and pinning high hopes on an industry that has continued to grow even as other tourism from the U.S. has been dropping since 9/11.

In return, so far, there has been an increase in the number of ships promising to come to the region. Between 2008 and 2011 the ports along the Saint Lawrence expect to see passenger numbers double.

But a $156 million investment could take years to recoup.

Cruise passengers are notoriously low spenders in destinations compared with land-based passengers. They don't buy hotel nights, they rarely have time to stay for dinner or evening cultural events and they even skip lunch sometimes since it's free on the ship.

Many buy shore excursions, which benefit the local businesses, but if the excursion is bought onboard, much of the profit goes right back to the cruise line.

The locals in the Eastern Canadian port towns are hoping the number of passengers will grow to the point where their spending will pay back the investment, and they hope that some of these cruisers will come back for longer, land-based stays.

"Of course this has to be a success," said someone on the Saint Lawrence side. "With the money we're spending, we have no choice but to make it one."

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