Tourism Tidal Wave
Tourism Tidal Wave

Forget 20/20 vision, Auckland needs to look ahead to 2021. In the first of a four-part series on the future of Auckland's tourism, we investigate how the city is working to get its infrastructure ready for APEC and the America's Cup.

You have never seen so many suitcases in your life. Thousands of pieces of rollie luggage arranged on Princes Wharf in regimented rows, ready to roll into unflinching battle with Auckland's congested roads.

The 143,000 tonne Majestic Princess, the flagship of the Princess Cruises line, is disgorging 3500 guests, and most of its 1400 crew, into the thudding construction site that is downtown Auckland.

Where the hundreds of buses and taxis try to turn out into Quay St, a very loud, very angry traffic warden in a hi-vis vest hollers at the departing drivers and pedestrians. "Go!" she shouts. "Go, go, go! Now!" And the cars and buses lurch left into the narrow trenches of roadworks cones before the lights change again.


Auckland gets about 2.6 million international guests a year. And nothing tests the infrastructure like a "turnaround day" for one of the world's biggest cruise liners, at the same time that the entire CBD is being dug up to build the new underground City Rail Link.

Nothing, a least, until 2021 – when Auckland will be hit by a perfect storm. That year, the city will host the America's Cup, the APEC Leaders' Summit, Te Matatini, the Royal NZ Yacht Squadron's 150th Anniversary, the women's Rugby World Cup, the women's Cricket World Cup, and the men's Softball World Championship.

And as the City Rail Link works continue, Auckland will still be a construction site.

If unloading the Majestic Princess is a military operation, the officer presiding over it is the very model of a modern major-general – or at least, a modern captain. The crisp lines of his white uniform, the even-sharper lines of his immaculately-trimmed beard, the twinkle in his eye.

Captain Dino Sagani is a star and he knows it.

An ITV fly-on-the-wall documentary aboard the ship, as it cruised around Australia and New Zealand, has just finished screening on British TV. Mic'd up day and night as he strolled the decks, sipped his macchiato, sampled the menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs, and swept the 80-year-old widows off their feet on the dancefloor, Sagani is now relaxed with the media.

Captain Dino Sagani of the Majestic Princess. Photo / Jola Josie
Captain Dino Sagani of the Majestic Princess. Photo / Jola Josie

He's been interviewed and profiled in countless publications this year, including London's Telegraph and Daily Mail. "Being Italian I tend to live by the Latin phrase 'mens sana in corpore sano', which means healthy mind in a healthy body," the 48-year-old winked, in that last interview.

To him, a perfect storm was steering the Majestic Princess into the entrance of Wellington Harbour in 45 knot winds, while being filmed for the reality TV show.


Now, with Auckland and the Sky Tower behind him, he casually rests his right hand on a railing on deck 18. Sagani was sent to sea at 16, saw active service aged 20 on an Italian Navy minesweeper in the First Gulf War, and still wears the beautiful Marina Militaire maritime watch presented to him on his retirement from the navy.

"Today we have 3500 passengers disembarking. Some stay for a few days, some go to the airport. So of course the transition of all these people can create a bit of congestion on the traffic.

"And I know sometimes the city authorities help out with controlling that traffic – and getting all our buses away. 3500 people is a lot. That has delayed things a bit."

He gestures towards the neighbouring wharf, barely 100 metres away. "That should be a lot better with the new berth."

Sagani is referring to plans to build a 90-metre concrete extension to Queen's Wharf.

"Even here, there was quite a preparation for Majestic Princess to dock in this berth, because we have a good 40 metres of the ship that is overhanging the berth."

Majestic Princess is 330 metres long. You could lay the entire SkyTower down the length of her deck. "We are longer than this berth," says Sagani.

Majestic Princess pulls into Auckland. Photo / James Morgan
Majestic Princess pulls into Auckland. Photo / James Morgan

"There was almost two years' discussion with the port authority to see the best way the ship can safely dock here. Or we would have had to go far away, maybe the container terminal.

"The city is already preparing on the passenger terminal over there, they are making an extra extension so that next year it will be easier to go and dock in that berth, so there will be less congestion with the hotels and roads and everything. So we are working well – the city is supporting us."

The city may be supporting the continuing tourism boom – but are Aucklanders?

And there's the rub, to co-opt the language of academia's Doxey Irritation Index, which is taught to New Zealand's tourism and hospitality students. Doxey's Index describes when tourism numbers start to irritate locals in their communities; when planners, instead of limiting the growth in visitors, just build more infrastructure.

Over recent months there have been colourful protests at the plans to extend Queen's Wharf out into Waitemata Harbour, to accommodate cruise liners even longer than the Majestic Princess.

At the same time, Fullers 360 complains of its North Shore and Waiheke ferries being forced to lay up for an hour at a time, to wait for big liners to pass. "They come in with a whole lot of tugs attached and it causes a lot of disruption on the water," says Fullers boss Mike Horne. "The other day we had a 12-minute trip from Bayswater, stuck out there for 40 minutes."

And on Great Barrier Island, iwi Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea and local environmentalists filed High Court papers this month to try to stop sludge from the building of the America's Cup Village being dredged from the inner harbour, then shipped out on barges in the dead of night to be dumped in their traditional fishing areas.

These tensions are to be expected when the city's tactic has been to simply run marketing campaigns to overseas tourists – sell, sell, sell – without talking with locals.

By 2025, the amount of money spent by visitors in Auckland is forecast to soar 85 per cent to $13.9 billion. The number of overnight guest nights will top 10 million, and 76,000 Aucklanders will be employed in the visitor sector.

Captain Dino Sagani of the Majestic Princess. Photo / Jola Josie
Captain Dino Sagani of the Majestic Princess. Photo / Jola Josie

But if Auckland is to avoid becoming another "over-touristed" Barcelona, Venice or Dubrovnik, it also faces a massive cost to develop the infrastructure to sustainably integrate these visitors.

The new Destination AKL 2025 strategy, which kicked off last year, is all about providing a cohesive plan that different arms of central and local government, along with business big and small, can unite behind. It aims to manage Auckland and its expanding infrastructure in a way that is not just about those who visit, not just about those who work in Auckland, not just about those who live there – but about all three together.

They have a long way to go. Until recently, Auckland Transport (a big council-controlled organisation) wasn't even talking to ATEED (another big council-controlled organisation), says former Tourism Industry Association boss Martin Snedden.

"AT never talked to other council-controlled organisations about Albert St being dug up for the City Rail Link," he exclaims, incredulously. "AT saw it as an engineering project that needed to be done as efficiently as possible, without any thought for the people who lived and worked there."

It was Snedden who chaired the high-powered industry leaders group that drove the new AKL 2025 strategy. A strategy that has prompted a complete overhaul of ATEED. An overhaul that has inspired major strategic changes at companies like SkyCity and AccorHotels, which were represented on the leaders group.

The strategy lays out six agree imperatives: that Auckland be a unique place, captivating, connected, skilled and insightful. That it be a sustainable place.

And the strategy calls for a cohesive approach to the city's development: for those who visit Auckland, for those who live in Auckland, for those who work in Auckland.

Catch the train into central Auckland's Britomart terminal. Ride the escalator up to ground level and look around you. The place is half closed off, a construction site, and there is little in the way of signs to tell you how to get out of the building past the builders' hoardings.

Nothing obvious to tell you how to get to the Britomart shopping and restaurants precinct, or the Spark Arena, or Queen St, or the nearby ferry terminal.

Snedden understands why people avoid going into Auckland's CBD: "It doesn't surprise me. I won't go into the CBD if I can help it."

And Snedden is also chairman of the central Auckland business and retail lobby group, Heart of the City – he's meant to be promoting it! "When you do get in there, there's actually quite a lot of good stuff happening."

Mike Horne from Fullers agrees, downtown is broken – and he's seriously concerned the infrastructure is not going to be fixed in time for 2021, when the world turns up en masse.
"There's simple stuff like signage out of Britomart – you're absolutely right," he observes.

"We do have two years of real disruptions all leading up to the America's Cup.

"It's going to be incredibly challenging to move the current 6½ million people we have now around, let alone if that organically grows over the next couple of years."

Auckland Council, ATEED and Panuku are promising downtown will be ready in time for the Cup – but Horne believes there are some very big question marks around those assurances.

"I'm reasonably worried. And I'm worried as much about the opportunity that's lost. If we're really struggling to get to 2021, where's the work on extending the networks? The frequency? The new infrastructure we need that includes modern vessels?"

All of this sounds grim. Snedden, Horne, ATEED General Manager Destination's Steve Armitage – to one degree or another, they all essentially agree that we've been trying to slap lipstick on a pig and sell it at the global tourism fair.

"While the City Rail Link won't be ready until 2024, by the time 2021 rolls around the construction work taking place closest to the waterfront will have shifted underground and further up town," Armitage insists.

But he also says: "Over-tourism is now an issue that is rubbing up the wrong way against local communities. We're getting ahead of that."

Why so candid? Because they also agree that now, there is a transformation underway.

The solution is Destination Management: working together to meet the needs of those who visit, work and live in Auckland. ATEED has been charged with coordinating the council-controlled organisations – not just the glitzy events, but also the transport, the infrastructure like power and water, and more. It's not just building roads and railway lines and hotels (the cranes to which Armitage points) but also making sure infrastructure is connected up, in the right place, at the right time.

For instance, tourist numbers are heavily weighted to summer, especially January and into February. If Fullers buys enough boats and hires enough skippers and deckhands to deal with the January glut, those boats and staff will be sitting idle most of the year.

Fullers responds to that by offering its staff the opportunity to work up to 55 hours weeks in summer, while easing off in winter – but tourism providers need to work together to ensure tourists arrive throughout the year, not just in January.

So ATEED and Fullers had a "robust" conversation with the organisers of the increasingly popular Sculpture on the Gulf festival, threatening to pull their sponsorship and support this year unless they shifted it from February to March.

Auckland ports as seen from the ferry to Waiheke. Photo / Konrad Kasiske
Auckland ports as seen from the ferry to Waiheke. Photo / Konrad Kasiske

So too, ATEED and AUT University's Tourism Research Institute are working with Auckland's outlying communities like Franklin and Matakana and Great Barrier Island to identify their points of difference, what they can offer visitors if the tourist traffic is dispersed more widely across the 1,086 sq km city. Matakana has vineyards as seductive as Waiheke's. Great Barrier Island has views that make your jaw drop.

"That's about making sure we're telling a cohesive, coherent story about Auckland's tourism offering," says Armitage. "That it's not just about Waiheke, that it is about the west, it is about Matakana, it's about the growing precinct in the south that we are continuing to support the development of. We think there are ever more reasons for visitors to stay here."

This week, the city's tourism leaders will announce a big drive to recruit 40,000 new workers to the industry over the next five years, to meet a feared shortage – and they are putting the heat on the Government to come to the party. "We need central government to recognise that this is a vocation that needs to be taken a little more seriously," says Armitage.

ATEED's Steve Armitage. Photo / Supplied
ATEED's Steve Armitage. Photo / Supplied

Looking out at the cranes that dot the skyline, constructing roads, railways, the International Convention Centre and thousands more hotel rooms, he refuses to name-check another destination that offers an example by cohesively managing its infrastructure for those who live, work and visit there.

"I don't want to be like any other city," he retorts.

"I want Auckland to be recognised in its own right. It is a truly unique place. And I feel very privileged to live here."

This is the first in a four-part series on the future of Auckland tourism made possible by ATEED. Tomorrow: Solving the skills shortage and finding 36,000 tourism workers in five years.