Luxury cruise company Silversea has revealed plans to boost its presence in New Zealand this summer as signs grow the ban on cruise ships will soon be lifted.
Silversea offers an around-the-clock butler service on its fleet and says demand for New Zealand cruises and from Kiwis wanting to sail is high.
About 40 per cent of passengers on its Australia and New Zealand voyages are from this region. The rest are affluent, big-spending travellers from other parts of the world, particularly the United States.
This country has banned cruise ships since the pandemic started more than two years ago but last month Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said work was under way to review the maritime border settings and allow the vessels back as restrictions on those arriving by air are relaxed.
Within the cruise industry, there is growing hope an announcement is imminent on allowing a restart of the industry, which contributed more than $550 million a year to the economy before the pandemic.
The return of cruise ships will help revitalise places like Auckland's hard-hit downtown and boost regional economies, which benefit from visits from smaller ships such as the ones Silversea operates.
A spokeswoman for Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday said work on allowing a return of cruise ships was continuing.
Silversea says its Silver Muse is scheduled to arrive in Auckland on January 4 for the start of the cruise season in this region, followed by the Silver Whisper, which will arrive from French Polynesia on January 8 for two months of cruising in this region.
A third ship, the Silver Shadow, will arrive in Auckland on January 25 as part of a sold-out world cruise and will tour New Zealand waters.
Silversea, part of the Royal Caribbean group, is selling its 2024 cruise lasting 132 days where all-inclusive prices range from US$66,000 ($96,000) to US$276,000.
The company's chief executive Roberto Marintoli told the Business Herald that New Zealand was an important market for Silversea and, with Australia, was highly desired by its wealthy clients. Pre-pandemic there was just one ship, the Silver Muse, based in Australasia.
"We are really looking forward to continuing our commitment to this market and we're very happy to continue to increase our presence with our ships as we are demonstrating this year."
An announcement soon on lifting restrictions — as has happened in the other markets it operates — was critical.
"It's absolutely crucial for us. People love cruising here and we want to make sure that we satisfy them. We've been keeping away for the past two years but now it's time for us to come back."
Australia will lift its ban on cruise ships over Easter.
Silversea has seven ships back in operation and three will be back into operation within the next three months. It also has its next generation of more environmentally friendly vessels under construction in Germany.
Marintoli said with the exception of a charter operation for domestic cruises in Saudi Arabia, Silversea had anchored ships from early in 2020 to around the middle of last year when it launched two new ships and was now back operating all around the world.
"The only area where we have not been very lucky has been this part of the world ... "
He said the restart in other places had been "incredibly successful" although it has recently had to drop ports in Russia and the Black Sea because of the invasion of Ukraine.
Like others in the travel industry, such as airlines selling more premium seats to leisure travellers and luxury resorts, Silversea was benefiting from pent-up demand from people willing to pay more for experiences they value.
"I will say one of the things as being a positive out of these two years is the fact that people have understood the importance of travel," Marintoli said. "It's refreshing to see the pent-up demand [and] people tend to go for a longer vacation."
Adam Radwanski, Silversea's managing director for Asia-Pacific, is confident demand from and for New Zealand will only increase.
Kiwis were booking on Silversea cruises elsewhere in the world now border restrictions here have eased but he said regional cruising would be even better for the economy.
"When Australia opened up a month ago, next day there was a surge in bookings for the domestic products."
Big-spending passengers from other countries used airlines and hotels in New Zealand before and after their cruise too.
He said New Zealand's return to cruise itineraries was a "game-changer for the industry because of the country's scenic beauty. The smaller numbers of passengers - fewer than 600 - compared to mass-market ships fitted well with the push to reduce the impact of visitors and the threat of over-tourism.
It was not only excursion providers, but suppliers of local goods such as food and wine that benefited.
Silversea's chief commercial officer Barbara Muckermann told the Business Herald the company's philosophy was aimed at allowing ''guests to travel deeper into the world - in luxury.
"One big insight by looking at our changing demographic was really to understand that food is the strongest expression of any culture. I would say particularly for New Zealand and Australia because it's a national obsession - which is a good thing."
The company had introduced a new food programme emphasising local foods and flavours.
"The new generation of consumers are not associating luxury with three-star Michelin restaurants anymore because these are mostly available in most large cities around the world. But for them authentic luxury when travelling is really experiencing those unique food - local flavours which you cannot have anywhere else."
The company is about to start cruises with the newest vessel, the Silver Dawn, which features a Roman-style spa, drawing on Silversea's Italian roots.
Muckermann said the Otivm Spa was indulgent. ''We decided to stop pretending you're ever going to lose weight on a cruise ship.''
The holistic experience is focused on pleasure.
"But the important thing to understand is that encouraging indulgence is not an ode to being unhealthy, it's about balance."
The cruise industry, like other parts of the travel sector, is under increased scrutiny for the environmental damage it can cause.
Marintoli said the Silver Nova under construction in Germany would use LNG as well as its main fuel and it would charge up batteries to operate the ship in port.
At 54,000 tonnes and with 720 passengers it is bigger than its predecessors but per guest emissions would be down about 40 per cent.
Another cruise line, NCL, is steaming back to New Zealand with a new range of sailings in this region. The 75,000-tonne Norwegian Spirit, which has just undergone a $150 million refit, is returning to Australian and New Zealand waters over summer.