By Anna Bowden
One of the world's biggest cruise ships sailed into Tauranga Harbour today - kicking off a four-day bonanza that will pump $2 million and more than 10,000 tourists into the Bay.
The luxury superliner Diamond Princess slipped into port with 3800 passengers and crew on board about 5.40am - 65 per cent of whom will leave the ship and spend their day in the Western Bay.
The floating city will return to Tauranga on Saturday, while the Statendam cruiseliner, carrying 1200 passengers and 550 crew, will visit the Bay tomorrow and again on Sunday.
For tourism operators and local businesses, the next four days will see the biggest number of arrivals in what is one of the busiest cruise seasons ever.
A record 30,000 cruise ship passengers will inject an estimated $18 million into the Western Bay economy this summer, with a total of 28 visits - double last year's number.
The Diamond Princess alone will visit eight times during the four-month Australasian season, bringing as many tourists here as would fit inside 11 jumbo jets.
At dawn today, locals basked in the glory of the luxurious ship as she glided into Pilot Bay, lit up like something from a fairytale.
Two dozen people huddled along the breezy Salisbury Wharf at Mount Maunganui's Pilot Bay, while another 30 or so gathered at Main Beach to see the glorious spectacle.
One of them, local fisherman Russell Anderson, said cruise ship arrivals were always worth an early morning start. "The biggest ship I've ever been on is the Cook Strait ferry," he chuckled. "It's just a beautiful sight this hour of the morning."
He and his family would have a picnic tea on the shore this evening to watch the ship depart at 6pm.
Youngsters Kieran Tower and Daniel Marr are holidaying with their families in Papamoa this week and came to watch the arrival this morning.
The boys were thrilled to have the chance to see such a large ship.
Truckline Services and Parts worker Jason Fox had his camera tripod set up to catch a shot of the liner as she peeked through the mouth of Pilot Bay.
"I've never taken photos of a ship in the dark before," he smiled.
And being on it wouldn't be too bad either, he said.
Bay cleaner Steve Rogerson traded his early start at work for a glimpse of the floating city for pure enjoyment.
"I just love looking at them, maybe it's a male thing ... you know, fire engines and planes and all that. It's really great."
Each time the ship docks an estimated $500,000 is added to the local economy through passenger and crew spending, stores and port fees.
Once in port, about 10 per cent of passengers stay on board, 25 per cent choose excursions to Rotorua, and the remainder participate in local excursions or simply hit the shops.
There are four Tauranga-based excursions and one at Katikati for them to choose from.
Tourism Bay of Plenty chief executive Tim Burgess said the number of Western Bay excursions had increased remarkably in the past five to six years. This was especially good because of the difficulty in getting on to the cruise ship offerings list.
"It is absolutely fantastic for Tauranga ... it shows how far we've come," he said.
One of the five tourism operators, Mount Classic Tours, has booked 80 people on its classic car tours around the Bay today.
Owner Ian Holroyd said: "We have a fairly niche market with luxury cars and small groups. We are flat out this weekend, with four ships in a row."
Tony Lugg, managing director of Bayline Coaches, said 30 buses would transport passengers on tours around the Bay and to Rotorua today.
"Generally speaking about 25 per cent of numbers on the cruise ship go to Rotorua. Also the crew spend a lot of money on clothing here."
He said while the Statendam ship was smaller there were still 22 buses required to transport 1200 passengers on each visit.
Port of Tauranga commercial manager and Cruise NZ executive member, Graeme Marshall, said the large jump in the number of visits was a reflection of passenger feedback.
"It is up to everyone who has contact with the visitors to ensure they have a great experience. Happy visitors spend money."
"At the port we see people coming back on the ship with large volumes of things they've bought, and not just the passengers, the crew too ... art, gifts, souvenirs, clothing, now you even see passengers looking at real estate."