All aboard? The cruise ship comeback

Alexia Russell - Reporter

Cruise ships will be returning to New Zealand shores this summer. The tourism industry is hopeful of a swift rebound in passenger numbers, but is that really what we want?

Our maritime border is about to reopen and cruise ships will soon be returning to our shores. The first one is due on 16 October – 946 days since the March 2020 lockdown stopped them docking.

The cruise industry here is looking forward to a swift rebound as the days of being locked up on a boat where Covid-19 is running rampant are fading from memory.

But tourism experts believe there is growing resistance to the arrival of hordes of cruise passengers swamping local communities, as the capacities of mega ships shoot up towards 8000.

Otago University Professor of Tourism James Higham tells The Detail about the factors we should be considering as cruise ships return.

He says Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has spoken about taking this opportunity to reset the operating model for tourism, into one that’s far more resilient and sustainable.

“The minister has said very clearly that the status quo cannot be the model for the direction of tourism in the future, because in the past it’s been unsustainable and has lacked resilience. He stated….that we won’t go back to how it was.

“Now that obviously raises the question of, what will the future of tourism look like?”

Higham says pre-pandemic tourism was based very much on visitor numbers and economic impacts.

“But that lacked sufficient attention on some really important aspects of tourism, which we now realise we can no longer ignore.”

For cruise ships that includes environmental issues, the lack of quality time spent in New Zealand by passengers making one-day port calls, the fact that the cruise ship companies are the ones benefiting most from visiting our shores, and questions over labour conditions that the industry has largely ignored.

Higham says now is the time to have those discussions, and to ask if cruising meets those important aspects of tourism.

“If they do come with high costs – then we need to make them accountable for those costs.”

He’s written an article for The Conversation saying new tourism should enrich Aotearoa New Zealand’s four kinds of capital: natural, financial, social and human/cultural.

The cruise ship industry argues that New Zealand needs the business that cruises bring. In 2018, 131 cruise ships docked in Auckland, and it’s estimated their presence boosted the economy by $200 million a year. There was a plan to build a wharf extension in the harbour to accommodate mega-ships, but it was strongly opposed and fell over under the weight of Auckland Council’s post-Covid-19 financial restraints.

House of Travel’s cruise expert Jeff Leckey disputes suggestions that passenger spending is disappointingly small, pointing out New Zealand tourism operators run shore excursions, and passengers visit local cafes, bars and shops.

There are 17 new ships launching this year, and Leckey says a lot of lines are retiring the older, more inefficient ships that are costing them a lot of money.

He says over the last 18 months they’ve had the chance to pause and look at what they can improve. That includes investigating alternative fuels and cutting the use of plastics on board.

“It’s baby steps, but it’s going in the right direction,” he tells The Detail.

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All aboard? The cruise ship comeback
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