Bay tour operators are gearing up for the first cruise ship of the season to sail into Tauranga this weekend, with at least four new operators keen to cash in on the growing market.
This season would be the biggest on record for ship visits with 83 calling, carrying 153,000 passengers. However, last season was the largest for passengers with 164,300 visiting Tauranga.
Sun Princess is due to dock at 7.15am tomorrow and sail for Napier at 7.15pm.
On five occasions cruise ships would remain in port overnight.
Tourism Bay of Plenty head of marketing Kath Low said the organisation worked with 27 local tour operators and at least four new tour operators were coming on board: Bay of Plenty Tours, NZ Discovery Tours, Silver Fern Scenic Tours, and Royal Cruise Ship Tours.
For the first time there would be an official visitor information centre operating under the Tauranga Cruise i-Site serviced by 17 sales staff and eight ambassadors.
Silver Ferns Scenic Tours owner-operator Pat Lally said after driving for another cruise ship tour operator for three years, he decided to go it alone four months ago.
Mr Lally, who also owns the Limelight Topiary Plants nursery in Pyes Pa, said he had budgeted for about 60 trips from Tauranga to Rotorua.
The scenic tour included taking in Moturiki blowhole, stopping off at a Te Puke kiwifruit orchard on the way to Okere Falls and Rotorua, where passengers would take in the Maori cultural show at Te Puia.
Along the way his passengers would be given a "great commentary" about what Tauranga and the Western Bay had to offer, and how important the kiwifruit industry was to the local and national economy.
Mr Lally said many people questioned why most tour operators headed to Rotorua, rather than staying in this area.
"But that is where most of our cruise ship passengers want to go. Almost all of them know about Rotorua's awesome geyserland, cultural experiences, and other gems it offers.
"It's a major drawcard particularly for Australian and Chinese visitors."
Mr Lally said one Bay operator tried launching a tour centred around the local tourist spots but it folded because there wasn't enough interest.
"Tauranga is a lovely city and beautiful but it just doesn't have as much of the wow factor that Rotorua offers visitors," he said.
Mr Lally said Silver Fern Scenic Tours also offered exclusive private tours.
Mount Mainstreet Association board chairwoman Jane Debenham said this weekend was going to be a "massive" one, with the cruise ship in port and the annual Mount Mainstreet busking competition.
"We love the cruise ships arriving. The majority of the retailers here are owner-operated and everyone has been looking forward to the season starting for months."
"Retailers expect to be extremely busy," she said.
Mrs Debenham said during the cruise season Mount Mainstreet was planning a number of initiatives as part of its marketing plan to encourage more passengers to stay in the city.
That included the possibility of extending shop opening hours to 9pm on December 22 when three cruise ships would sail into Tauranga, she said.
"It's very important that we keep as many of these passengers in town. The number of new tour operators clearly means people see an opportunity to take advantage of this growing market, with lots of offerings."
This season's expected stats
83 ships to call
153,000 passengers, plus 66,000 crew
Five ships will overnight in Tauranga
Ovation of the Seas (largest ship to berth in NZ) and Emerald Princess will bring about 9500 visitors