Opinion: Seattle is now beating Vancouver's long-held tourism infrastructure strengths

Mar 17 2023, 11:50 pm

There is no question that the Seattle region is an economic powerhouse like no other urban area in the Pacific Northwest.

After all, it is the headquarters of global giants Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Expedia, and Alaska Airlines. Within the Seattle region, these firms collectively employ hundreds of thousands of people in well-paying positions, providing the area with ample disposable income.

And while Seattle’s strengths also entail tourism, driven by its breadth of attractions, arts, culture, natural surroundings, history, and business travel, it has lagged behind its major northern neighbour on certain major components of tourism-supporting infrastructure — up until very recently.

Seattle is increasingly making moves that set itself up to better compete against the same strengths that bring tourists and other visitors to Vancouver. These limited strengths for Vancouver are absolutely vital for driving tourism given that the region lacks the same breadth of attractions offered by Seattle.

Let’s start with how visitors get to their destination: the airport.

For 12 consecutive years, up until 2021, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) was ranked by Skytrax as North America’s best airport. And between the late 2000s and early 2010s, YVR also regularly made it to Skytrax’s rankings of the 10 best airports in the world, until the field of competition became more crowded from the completion of new and improved airport terminals elsewhere in the world.

YVR’s streak for the North American title first ended in 2022, and again this week for the 2023 ranking. But what changed? YVR now has competition from its neighbour to the south.

In March 2022, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) completed a transformative US$1 billion international terminal building expansion on a scope as significant as YVR’s modernization in 1996. With the opening of the new terminal, SEA has soared in Skytrax’s global rankings, earning a top-place finish for North America for two straight years.

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2022-built International Arrivals Facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Port of Seattle)

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2022-built International Arrivals Facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Port of Seattle)

Skytrax’s ranking is a testament to the greatly improved passenger experience with travelling through SEA, but the upgrades also serve to enable the Seattle airport to compete with Vancouver for a much larger share of Trans Pacific international hub traffic in the Pacific Northwest.

SEA sees far more passenger volumes than YVR from its domestic volumes, but YVR actually has a significantly larger international volume than SEA even when YVR’s US transborder volumes are not accounted for.

SEA’s recent terminal expansion overhauled its international terminal to improve connections between international flights and SEA’s domestic flights. The number of international gates has been nearly doubled, a new customs hall has been built, and the number of international bag claim carousels has also almost doubled. Overall, SEA’s capacity to process international passengers has more than doubled from 1,200 passengers per hour to 2,600 passengers per hour.

Delta Airlines has a strategy to make good use of SEA’s international terminal expansion by turning the airport into a Trans Pacific hub.

In 2019, then-YVR CEO Craig Richmond said SEA’s international terminal expansion strategy is the greatest threat to YVR’s Trans Pacific hub business, and he highlighted Delta Airlines’ potential of drawing on 330 million US residents.

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2022-built International Arrivals Facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Port of Seattle)

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Artistic rendering of the future C Concourse Expansion project at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It will reach completion in 2027. (Port of Seattle)

Tourism-supporting infrastructure also entails accommodations capacity, specifically hotel room supply.

In pre-pandemic 2019, the Seattle region saw 22 million overnight visitors, while Metro Vancouver recorded over 11 million. Both regions at the time experienced year-over-year growth reaching new record levels of visitation.

While Metro Vancouver has shed thousands of hotel rooms over the span of more than a decade, Seattle has been experiencing quite the opposite trend of undergoing a hotel building boom for years, since well before the pandemic.

Between 2015 and 2018, Seattle added about 3,200 rooms, including 2,550 new rooms in downtown Seattle between 2017 and 2018 — a 21% increase to over 14,000 rooms. This tally includes the 2018-built, 45-storey Hyatt Regency Seattle with 1,260 rooms, making it the largest hotel in Washington State.

Prior to the pandemic, it was anticipated an additional 3,000 rooms would reach completion in Seattle between 2019 and 2021. Some of these projects have been impacted by the pandemic.

In contrast, at the end of 2022, the entirety of Vancouver, not just its downtown, had 13,290 rooms across 78 properties at the end of 2022 — down from the peak of 15,242 rooms in 2002, according to Destination Vancouver. Since 2010, Metro Vancouver as a whole lost about 2,000 rooms, including about 1,500 rooms within Vancouver. The pre-pandemic supply losses were driven by residential redevelopments and conversions of older hotel properties, while the pandemic-time losses were due to governments buying older properties for rapid housing for the homeless.

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2018-built Hyatt Regency Seattle hotel in downtown Seattle. (LMN Architects)

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2018-built Hyatt Regency Seattle hotel in downtown Seattle. (LMN Architects)

Vancouver’s tourism bureau warns that not only does the city and region as a whole need to catch up on lost capacity, but there needs to be a significant net gain of over 20,000 rooms over the next three decades — 5,500 rooms within downtown Vancouver, another 5,500 rooms elsewhere in Vancouver, and almost 11,000 rooms in the rest of Metro Vancouver to avoid foregone tourism and economic benefits.

Over the short term through 2030, it is estimated at least about 4,000 additional rooms will be needed across the region, including nearly 2,000 additional rooms within Vancouver. But it is expected the region, especially in Vancouver where demand is highest, will fall short based on the known projects in the pipeline.

If demand continues to outpace the growth of hotel room supply, Vancouver will continue to see escalating hotel room rates. As of December 2022, out of Canada’s six largest urban centres, Vancouver now has by far the highest hotel room rates and the highest room occupancy rate, indicating high demand.

“This is crucial for our global destination competitiveness,” warned Royce Chwin, the president and CEO of Destination Vancouver, earlier this month. “Lack of available hotel rooms will make visiting Vancouver even more expensive, and the city will be less competitive in attracting major conferences, large sporting events, and leisure group travel. Vancouver is running short on time to prepare for the influx of visitors and the economic impact they contribute to the city. Those visitors will just go elsewhere.”

Seattle also now has a much larger modern convention centre to attract and compete with Vancouver for meetings, conferences, conventions, and events.

They even tasked Seattle-based LMN Architects, the same firm behind the award-winning design of the 2009-built West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre, to design the Summit expansion building of Seattle Convention Center (previously known as Washington State Convention Center).

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2023-built Summit building expansion of the Seattle Convention Centre. (LMN Architects)

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2023-built Summit building expansion of the Seattle Convention Centre. (LMN Architects)

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Cross-section diagram of the 2023-built Summit building expansion of Seattle Convention Center. (LMN Architects)

Summit opened adjacent to the existing convention centre in early 2023, providing 574,000 sq ft of additional exhibition and meeting space — nearly doubling the size of Seattle Convention Centre.

There is now ample space at Seattle Convention Center for each type of space than Vancouver Convention Center.

The new Hyatt Regency Seattle hotel is also located immediately adjacent to Summit, and it provides an additional 100,000 sq ft of meeting and convention space.

The West Building transformed Vancouver’s ability to attract and hold conferences, conventions, and events. It has since become one of Vancouver’s most significant engines for tourism and the broader economy, bringing business to local restaurants, shops, services, hotels, and attractions in and around downtown Vancouver.

Seattle is looking to do the same for its own downtown through Summit, albeit Vancouver Convention Centre’s allure is also driven by its unique attractive surroundings — a central waterfront location with mountain views, attached to a cruise ship terminal. Both the old and new buildings of Seattle Convention Centre are next to a downtown freeway.

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2023-built Summit building expansion of the Seattle Convention Centre. (LMN Architects)

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2023-built Summit building expansion of the Seattle Convention Centre. (LMN Architects)

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2023-built Summit building expansion of the Seattle Convention Centre. (LMN Architects)

But size does matter. For example, the West Building’s ballroom with a size of 53,000 sq ft enables it to be transformed each year into the custom-built theatre for the internationally prestigious TED Conference, and Vancouver would not have held multiple annual SIGGRAPH conferences without the West Building.

And in 2025, the Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention will be held at Vancouver Convention Centre, which won the rights to host the event well in advance in 2013. The Vancouver event is expected to see as many as 80,000 attendees from around the world — more than the initially predicted 50,000 — due to pent-up demand from the pandemic cancellation of the Detroit 2020 event. This convention is held every five years.

Could such similar-scale and notable events be lured to Seattle in the future?

The International Dota 2 Championships tournament, one of the most prestigious eSport tournaments in the world, was relocated in 2018 to Vancouver’s Rogers Arena from Seattle’s KeyArena, where the annual event had been held for four consecutive years. Over the subsequent years, Dota 2 has been on a world tour, held in Shanghai, Bucharest, and Singapore.

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December 2021: Climate Pledge Arena. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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December 2021: Climate Pledge Arena. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Since then, KeyArena has undergone a complete transformation into a world-class indoor arena, and the home of the new NHL Seattle Kraken team. Even though Climate Pledge Arena — the new name of the venue given by naming rights sponsor Amazon — reuses the roof of KeyArena, everything else below it is brand new with the latest arena design principles and amenities.

The 2021-built Climate Pledge Arena is, by leaps and bounds, a more impressive venue than the 1995-built Rogers Arena, which is now amongst the oldest NHL/NBA-capable arenas in Canada and the United States. The home of the NHL Vancouver Canucks, the primary indoor arena in Metro Vancouver, is really starting to show its age, and its amenities and design is increasingly comparably outdated and underwhelming compared to the newest arenas.

Some of Vancouver’s sport-hosting infrastructure competitive advantages can also be seen domestically, with BC Place Stadium considered Canada’s flagship stadium following its 2011 makeover.

Ever since, BC Place Stadium has held far more major international sporting events than any other Canadian stadium, including World Rugby’s annual Canada Sevens stop, and it is why FIFA strongly preferred Vancouver over Edmonton and its Commonwealth Stadium as one of the Canadian venues for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and why Vancouver is expected to be assigned with more tournament matches than Toronto’s small and lacklustre BMO Field.

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December 2021: Climate Pledge Arena. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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December 2021: Climate Pledge Arena. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

I would be remiss if I did not include public transit as part of tourism-supporting infrastructure, given that many visitors don’t have access to vehicles and prefer to get around in other ways to reach attractions and destinations.

Seattle is also making much headway in catching up with TransLink’s Metro Vancouver SkyTrain network by significantly expanding Sound Transit’s Link LRT rapid transit system.

Link LRT expanded by nearly eight km in 2016, including reaching the University of Washington campus. At the very earliest, SkyTrain will not arrive at the University of British Columbia campus until the early 2030s.

A seven-km-long Link LRT extension opened in 2021, and an additional 55 km currently under construction across four extension projects will reach completion between 2024 and 2025.

By 2025, Link LRT will grow to a network size of 100 km — up from its current size of 42 km. While the initial system of Link LRT constructed in the early 2000s included some street-level segments, the 2010s-built extensions and the projects currently under construction will be SkyTrain-like with largely full-grade separation — running in tunnels, on elevated guideways, and ground-level separated medians. The superior standard of full-grade separation is the standard for future extensions moving forward.

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2021-built U District Station on the Link LRT in Seattle. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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2021-built U District Station on the Link LRT in Seattle. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

It took Metro Vancouver 31 years to reach a SkyTrain network size of 80 km, with the 2016 opening of the Millennium Line Evergreen Extension.

The six-km-long Millennium Line Broadway Extension reaching Arbutus will undoubtedly be transformative for the region’s public transit network when it opens in early 2026.

SkyTrain will grow to a network size of 102 km by 2028 when the 16-km-long Expo Line Surrey-Langley Extension opens.

Later expansions of Link LRT in the 2030s and 2040s will expand the network to 187 km.

This is in addition to 72 km of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes called Stride, which will reach completion in a few years.

By the early 2030s, under TransLink’s 10-year priorities, Metro Vancouver could see up to 170 km of new rapid transit on 11 corridors, but the vast majority of this new length will be BRT — in lieu of more ambitious SkyTrain extensions across the region. This total rapid transit expansion length includes the proposed UBC SkyTrain extension, and an unspecified permanent North Shore rapid transit solution, which may be something less superior than a proper SkyTrain extension.

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2021-built U District Station on the Link LRT in Seattle. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Seattle Link Sound Transit

Map of under-construction and planned Seattle Link LRT expansion projects, as well as existing Link lines. (Sound Transit)

Seattle has taken away Vancouver’s thunder in tourism infrastructure in other ways before.

While Vancouver’s cruise ship industry is currently experiencing a strong post-pandemic recovery, it continues to face tough competition from Seattle’s comparatively newer industry.

For decades, Vancouver was the largest cruise ship port in the Pacific Northwest and the main port for Alaska cruise itineraries until 2008, when passenger volumes in Seattle exceeded Vancouver for the very first time.

Canada Place in downtown Vancouver began operating as a cruise ship terminal in 1986, the year it was built, but Seattle’s cruise ship industry only began in the late-1990s after the construction of its first cruise ship terminal.

The Port of Seattle saw a trickle of 6,615 passengers in its inaugural cruise season in 1999, followed by immediate success with explosive growth in the following years. In 2000, passenger numbers grew to 119,770, and by 2008 the volumes had grown more than sevenfold.

Vancouver’s cruise ship passenger numbers regularly fall behind Seattle’s figures, although the gap narrowed somewhat starting in the late 2010s from Vancouver’s stronger performance.

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Norwegian Bliss cruise ship in downtown Seattle in 2018. (Shutterstock)

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Cruise ships near downtown Seattle. (Shutterstock)

For the 2023 season between April and October, Seattle is expected to see over 1.4 million cruise ship passengers — more than the 1.3 million passengers in Vancouver, if all of the ships are full.

But this gap is likely to widen again in the future from Seattle coming further ahead, as it is fully capable of handling the newest and largest cruise ships in the world. Vancouver’s cruise ship terminal at Canada Place struggles to accommodate newer vessels, which are generally larger and more operationally efficient, due to the low height clearance of the Lions Gate Bridge.

The Port of Seattle cancelled the bidding process seeking a partner to fund, build, and operate a US$200-million third cruise ship terminal, conveniently located in downtown Seattle. While the request for proposal was cancelled in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic’s most severe impacts, the project is not permanently cancelled, and is expected to be revived at some point in the future.

In early 2020, until the pandemic’s sudden onset, the Port of Vancouver was expected to begin public consultation on its proposal to consider building an additional cruise ship terminal in Richmond or Delta, including the option of a cruise ship terminal co-located with Tsawwassen’s cargo port facilities along with establishing new synergies with the adjacent Tsawwassen Mills shopping centre.

This secondary cruise ship terminal in Richmond or Delta will address the inability to handle new and larger ships, but its location does not provide the same allure as a terminal in downtown Vancouver. The option for a cruise ship terminal in Tsawwassen also depends on proceeding with the replacement crossing for the George Massey Tunnel to greatly improve transportation capacity and reliability.

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Potential location of the future third cruise ship terminal in downtown Seattle, located near Lumen Field and T-Mobile Park stadiums and Seattle’s Chinatown. (Port of Seattle)

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Cruise ships in downtown Seattle. (Port of Seattle)

Needless to say, each cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers brings enormous economic benefits to the restaurants, shops, hotels, and services in and around the downtowns of Vancouver and Seattle, and they add to airport passenger volumes.

In multiple ways, the moves made by Seattle are increasingly a threat to the drivers of tourism and overnight visitation to Metro Vancouver, and there needs to be renewed attention to tourism infrastructure and facilities through reinvestments and public policy.

And tourism accounts for a much larger proportion of the Metro Vancouver economy than what tourism supports in Seattle.

After all, once again, as the home of some of the world’s most influential and impactful multinational corporations, Seattle has other major economic strengths to fall back on. Vancouver does not.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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