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City seeks other options for cruise ship passengers due to closure of HT Leasing charter bus service

The closure of HT Leasing reduces an already-diminished local fleet of coaches
Happy Time tour bus
HT Leasing, the charter bus department of Happy Time Tours, will close its doors on Feb. 28, 2022 (Canada 247)

THUNDER BAY — The closure of a local charter bus service later this month is increasing the urgency to find motor coaches to serve the needs of cruise ship passengers visiting Thunder Bay this year.

HT Leasing, the charter bus department of Happy Time Tours, was lined up as one of the transportation providers on land when cruise ships return to the city this spring.

However, the company announced Tuesday that it will close the doors of the busing side of the business for good on Feb. 28.

Luke Reynolds, manager of HT Leasing and a director of Happy Time Tours, told TBNewswatch the impact of COVID-19 got to be too much.

"We gave it our all...You can only go so far. Eighty-five per cent of our business was in the USA. With all these restrictions, it hampers everything," he said.

The company provided shuttle service to and from the Grand Portage, Minnesota casino prior to the closure of the Canada/US border in early 2020.

Reynolds said the ceasing of bus operations after the pandemic was declared "was not our doing. That was government doing. If there's someone to blame, it's not ownership, it's not management. I think it's COVID."

Thunder Bay Tourism Manager Paul Pepe agrees that the motor coach industry across the country has suffered severely from the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years.

"We're not immune to that. Part of the puzzle is how to re-grow travel, and working with our partners to help do that," he said.

By coincidence, Pepe had referred to this challenge in a report to city council Monday night, saying his department has already been pursuing all options, including bus operators in Manitoba and the U.S.

Time is of the essence.

The largest passenger vessel ever seen on the Great Lakes, Viking Expeditions' 378-passenger Viking Octantis  is scheduled to arrive in Thunder Bay on May 26.

Passengers will disembark and return home by air, with a new group flying to Thunder Bay for boarding two days later.

"We're working in close contact with the shore excursion operators, and Viking themselves, and making sure we can meet their expectations," Pepe said.

He hopes other bus operators can fill that need, but it may be necessary to go farther afield.

"Pre-pandemic we had about 14 [local] coaches in the inventory, and I think now we're down to about six or seven. With HT Leasing gone, it's even less."

Pepe also raised the possibility of using Thunder Bay Transit buses, however "the cruise line industry, as a global standard, prefers to use motor coaches for moving their guests, for comfort and convenience."

He added that although it make take some creativity, "We want to make sure we kick off this year with the best possible service, and making sure the guests are happy, so we can build this long-term industry and this relationship on a good note."

The Viking Octantis will make seven trips to Thunder Bay this year, while American Queen Voyages' Ocean Navigator will visit twice.

The city hasn't seen a cruise ship since 2013.

The Community Economic Development Commission estimated last year that the industry could generate a local economic impact of over $20 million between 2022 and 2024, and support dozens of jobs.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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