Cruising NZ steams ahead

By Tamsyn Parker

For many people mention of the words "cruise ship holiday" brings images of elderly people playing shuffleboard accompanied by the sounds of The Love Boat to mind.

But it seems the old cliches are becoming further from the truth as "cruising" becomes a global phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar business.

More than 17 million people are expected to cruise the world every year by 2010 and it is a growth story New Zealand is tapping into.

In the 1996/97 cruise season fewer than 20,000 people visited New Zealand as part of a cruise ship holiday. This season more than 130,000 are expected, bringing with them close to $500 million in direct spending.

Anthony Fisk, Australasian spokesman for the Carnival Group, the biggest operator of cruise ships in New Zealand waters through its ownership of Cunard, Princess Cruises and P&O Australia, says the domestic business is booming.

"We have just had our busiest start to the year. We have seen consecutive growth every year for the last five years."

Fisk said that unlike the Northern Hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand were only now starting to catch on to the cruise ship trend.

"The Australasian market has grown off a fairly low base. Places like America and Europe people do cruises frequently, Australians are just learning about it."

Fisk believed the recent drop in local currencies meant people were travelling less to Europe and America and many were now looking at cruises as a value-for-money way of holidaying near home.

"You have everything on board, everything is included so there are no hidden surprises. That is a concern for people at the moment."

Unlike the longer cruises the transtasman and Pacific cruises generally attracted more families and couples, he said.

The company had to limit the number of families on board as its facilities could only cater for so many, which often meant family berths were booked out 12 months in advance.

"The demands during the vacation period we just can't accommodate."

Seven to 12-day cruises were the most popular and ships could host 2000 to 3000 people at any one time.

Fisk said people on average booked eight months in advance.

"It's not like air travel, you can't book the day before. There just won't be any availability. Most sell out two to three months before the cruise departs."

But outside the New Zealand and Australian markets, cruise ships have hit stormier waters.

Craig Harris, chairman of the industry body Cruise New Zealand, said that before this season about 45 per cent of international cruise visitors were from America but the numbers had dropped off.

"There have been cancellations because of the economic situation. The ships were fully booked prior to that."

Harris said ships were still coming into New Zealand fully loaded with passengers but cruise lines were substituting passengers from the United States by picking up more from Europe, South America and Asia.

"We are seeing a change in nationalities."

He said there had been growth in the number of cruises coming to New Zealand since the mid-1990s.

"It flat-lined for a couple of years around September 11 but we have been growing steadily since then."

The main cruise season starts around late September/early October and runs until March/April, although a growing number of New Zealanders are also going on cruises over the winter period up to the Pacific Islands.

Harris said that although only halfway through, the 20008/09 season was still holding up on predictions but he expected numbers for next season to be down 5 to 10 per cent.

The drop would be mainly due to US company Celebrity Cruises pulling out of its New Zealand stops in the 2009/10 season, but Harris said Celebrity would be back for the 2010/11 season.

"It appears to be a one-season tactical move by the company. It's a little early to tell but the drop doesn't appear to be significant. What we are seeing is a minor dip in 09/10 based on bookings we have."

Harris said many of the larger cruise ship companies were pulling back into the US market to make it easier to sell cruises to Americans feeling the pinch as staying around home territory meant they did not have to pay for expensive long-haul flights to get into New Zealand or Australia to start their cruise.

It is a trend which cruise ship tour specialist Jeremy Palmer has noted.

"The biggest barrier to US visitors is the high cost of the airfare to New Zealand. A lot of the market is fly and cruise. Airfares are unbelievably high at the moment."

Palmer said the problem was caused by lack of competition on the New Zealand-US route but he was hopeful that could be solved with the advent of another airline flying the route soon.

But the effects of the US economic problems are still being felt.

Palmer, who is managing director of ID Tours, said his business had noticed a 20 per cent drop in tour bookings this season.

Part of the reason was because more Kiwis and Australians were filling up berths left cancelled by Americans and Australasians were less likely to book on to tours. Next season was an unknown factor.

"To be honest, we really don't know. It is just so uncertain. But if we look back at the shocks the industry has had in the past, it does come back quickly."

Palmer believed there was suppressed demand by many tourists who could still afford to travel but felt they shouldn't, which would see passengers return to the cruising industry.

"We should be fine, so long as things don't get worse."

He said New Zealand compared favourably with other countries in terms of port calls. Some cruise ships called at up to five ports in New Zealand whereas in Australia they stopped at only three.

But the main problem in New Zealand was infrastructure, particularly the need for a purpose-built cruise ship facility in Auckland.

Before the economic crisis hit the industry was also plagued by shortages of coaches and drivers to cater for tourists but that had now eased.

"Really, a wharf is the issue at the moment."

Harris said the industry was talking to the Auckland Regional Council about a new facility at Queens Wharf but it was still "very much at the discussion stage".

But some certainty would be needed soon to be able to reassure the cruise lines that they would not have to keep coming to a "tin shed".

Despite the infrastructure issues, Palmer said Auckland rated well in comparison with other international ports and was often rated in the top 10.

"They say we are cruise friendly."

- NZ Herald

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