Wendy R London: Time to look at big picture on cruise ships

Better use of our existing waterfront assets is preferable to pouring more concrete into our beautiful harbour.
Auckland is one of the most popular and fastest-growing cruise destinations in the world. Photo / Greg Bowker
Auckland is one of the most popular and fastest-growing cruise destinations in the world. Photo / Greg Bowker

Wendy R London lives in Hawera and is doing a PhD (extramural) at Griffith University, Queensland, on how stakeholder networks shape proposals for cruise development, using Auckland as her case study. She is also an ardent cruise passenger.

A new mayor, a smattering of new councillors, but the same issue: Where are we going to park the boats? Or more accurately, where will we park the big cruise ships?

Back in 1998, when Princes Wharf was officially designated as Auckland's international cruise terminal, the expectation was that the largest ship that would dock there would carry no more than 700 passengers. So far, so good. Princes Wharf continued to function fairly well, even with the arrival of ships carrying 1500 passengers or even 2100 passengers - as long as supply trucks didn't jack-knife across the access road and as long as there was someone to point arriving and departing passengers in the right direction.

Capacity doubled when Queens Wharf became available, providing Auckland with one of the best-located cruise piers in the world. Get off the ship, walk to the end of the wharf and you find yourself within touching distance of the CBD. Still, so far so good.

But then something happened. The cruise lines announced the addition of big ships to their fleets, very big ships. Ships longer than 300m and carrying more than 4000, or even 5000 passengers.

They are floating towns, bigger than many New Zealand townships. And some of these ships are heading to one of the most popular and fastest-growing cruise destinations in the world - ours, including Auckland - a destination that welcomes cruise ships, no Nimby here.

However, just like in almost every other cruise port around the world, changes have to be made to accommodate these behemoths. Some destinations are raising the height of their fixed bridges so the ships can sail underneath, others are dredging channels, still others are building new terminals and reconfiguring their old ones, just as Auckland Airport had to reconfigure its air bridges to accommodate the big A-380 aircraft.

If Auckland Airport could do that, why can't we figure out how to accommodate the big ships at our cruise port?

Lots of formal proposals and informal suggestions have been circulated over the years - but, sadly, most have met with opposition of one sort of another.

And that's what worries me. Where's the leadership? Where's the big-picture discussion? Where's the strategic response? Cruise ships aren't, and shouldn't be, political footballs. Neither are wharves. And neither is this the biggest issue facing Auckland, although there are some who believe it is. It is but one issue, and one that requires a decision based on good, solid reasoning and strategic thinking.

Take the recent proposal to sink a "dolphin" in the harbour (a structure driven into the seabed so that ships that extend beyond the wharf can be securely tied up).

Not a bad solution if there's no other choice, and the benefits outweigh the financial and non-financial costs. But there are choices, such as using existing long berths within the port precinct, as we have done before. And in the longer-term, parking the mega ships at Wynyard Wharf.

No transport, I hear you say? Well, for the cost of constructing the dolphin, a marquee with basic amenities could be erected and a lot of passenger shuttles could be laid on for those who can't or don't want to walk through that delightful quarter.

Ugly tanks? Believe it or not, cruise passengers are curious about the industrial landscapes they visit, including the port environs. In the long-term, though, Wynyard would be my preference as our primary port for mega ships - long wharves, and an area that could (and should) be connected to the CBD with light rail.

I am therefore not keen to see a dolphin in the proposed location in the harbour - a not-so-thin additional wedge towards reclamation? A bad bargaining chip? A raison d'etre for another boatie protest?

I'd like to see us making better use of our existing waterfront assets, rather than pouring more concrete into our beautiful harbour.

We need a good think about what cruise means to Auckland now, and what it will mean in the future. Yes, there are all sorts of numbers flying around about the economic contribution cruise ships make to Auckland, but we haven't even begun to tap into its true potential.

Consider this: Auckland is our principal turnaround port (where passengers start and finish their cruises), and also our main supply port. New Zealand is a two-day sail to any other cruise destination, whether it be Australia or the Pacific Islands. Wouldn't that galvanise Auckland businesses into actively promoting their goods and services to the cruise lines?

Fresh food, fresh flowers, an engine that needs a rewind, a couple of dozen new desk chairs, party supplies, local wines for the ship's cellar, tech stuff ... Besides the need to restock and resupply, cruise passengers increasingly seek out the authentic, the local. It would make sense if that experience starts in the ship's stores.

We need to build a solution around what is becoming an increasingly strategic tourism sector for Auckland, not build some wharves and their appendages around some daft, short-term ideas.

- NZ Herald

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