Waiheke Islanders and their visitors are suddenly spoiled for choice with the arrival of not just one but two new ferry operators.
As the Explore Group made a fanfare with its launch a fortnight ago of a new seven-day service in competition with long-standing ferry operator Fullers, a third venture quietly began weekend-only runs offering cut-price deals.
Sealink, which has for several years run vehicle ferries between Half Moon Bay and Waiheke, is now using smaller 50-seat passenger vessels for 10 daily return services from central Auckland at weekends.
That means 41 return services offered by the three operations on Saturdays and 38 on Sundays.
But Sealink is ruffling the feathers of the two larger ventures by offering special deals for this month of $10 single-trip fares, $20 return and half those prices for children.
Even its standard return single adult fare of $30 will be $6 cheaper than offered by either Fullers or Explore, although a $20 children's ticket will cost $2 more.
Explore chief William Goodfellow yesterday acknowledged Sealink's arrival had taken him by surprise, but said it had not stopped his new service from gaining strong customer support.
"We are here for the long term, providing a full service into the future," he told the Weekend Herald.
But his counterpart at Fullers, Doug Hudson, said it was disappointing Sealink had decided to "cherry-pick" the weekend summer market.
"That takes the cream off it for other operations which are there for all year round, and that's the disappointing part," he said.
Sealink managing director Todd Bolton said his company was simply making the best use at weekends of three vessels it had bought for a five-day commuter service it took over in August between Pine Harbour and Auckland, and wanted to "grow" the market.
"We were probably looking well before Explore at opportunities for engaging those vessels on other routes," he said.
"It's a very competitive market now, but also a big growth market with tourism, so we think we can provide a unique service a little different to the others."
Long-time Waiheke resident John Stansfield said he was "thrilled to bits" to see more options than Fullers previously offered as a lone operator.
"It's great to see boats at different times and lovely not to have to stand in a queue that goes from the ferry to Khazakhstan on a Friday."