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Cruise ships return to boost economy

Hawke’s Bay’s economy is poised for a major shot in the arm this summer with as many as 80 cruise ships set to dock at the Port of Napier after a two-year-long COVID-19 enforced hiatus.

The years preceding the COVID-19 outbreak saw the cruise industry become a mainstay of the Napier and wider Hawke’s Bay economy, with local tourism building opportunities to cater for an influx of international tourists wanting to spend money. Napier takes on a whole new persona and vibrancy when a cruise ship is in town, with shops, restaurants and local attractions very busy. But the economic implications of cruise ships reach wider than Napier, with wineries, tourist attractions and cafes in Hastings district benefitting financially.

Millions of international dollars have poured into the local economy as a result of these luxury vessels berthing at Napier. The impact COVID-19 has had on the Hawke’s Bay economy is best reflected by Napier Port’s financial year (FY) cruise revenue from 1 October to 31 September. FY2020 saw 76 cruise vessels berth at the port, bringing in $4.3 million in revenue.

This could have been even bigger but the season was curtailed due to the outbreak, with 11 fewer visits than forecast. FY2021 figures were bleak – a big zero. In a normal year cruise ships account for about three to five percent of port revenue but regionally, the figure is a lot higher. In the 2018/19 season, passengers spent approximately $23 million in the region.

There is no question that the loss of the cruise dollars due to COVID-19 hit the local tourism industry hard and many businesses that had built their livelihood around the cruise season had to look for any means possible to survive.

Hawke’s Bay Tourism CEO Hamish Saxton says while there are no new tourism operators since the last time the cruise ships visited, existing ones are gearing up for the season.

“At a recent cruise briefing to members and stakeholders, we met with tourism operators who were in business at the time we last hosted cruise ship visitors. The majority of these businesses have either been able to operate over the past two years relying on the largely domestic visitors or are now in a position to come out of hibernation with the return of this market. However, we do know of two businesses that are not returning.”

He says that the cruise industry is very important to the growth of the local economy. “The New Zealand Cruise Association estimated the 2019 cruise season was worth $30 million to the Hawke’s Bay region.” With kickstarting the local economy a priority, much thought was put into how to maximise the rebooting of the cruise season.

A Hawke’s Bay Cruise Restart Workshop was held in June, with Napier Port, Hawke’s Bay Tourism, NZ Cruise Association and Napier City Council presenting. The event was well attended by cruise industry operators and other key stakeholders and served as a valuable planning session ahead of the first cruise vessels arriving at the end of October. Napier Port chief executive Todd Dawson says demand for the upcoming season is robust.

The current schedule has more than 80 cruise calls to Napier booked during the upcoming season, which runs from October through to April. This includes 20 double days – two cruise vessels in port at the same time.

“Napier Port is excited to welcome back cruise ships and our team is busy preparing for the upcoming season. “We’re confident that Napier Port and Hawke’s Bay remain attractive destinations for the cruise industry and demand for the upcoming season is robust.” Todd says the first cruise ship booked to visit Napier is the Ovation of the Seas, which at 347.08 metres long is also the largest vessel to come into Napier Port. The last booking in the schedule is the Grand Princess (290 metres), currently set to visit on 6 April 2023.

“Our fulltime cruise coordinator role will be in charge of cruise operations on port for the season, with support from our cruise customer service team. We will begin recruiting for these roles this month,” says Todd. He says that while operations to welcome the ships back were going full steam ahead, public health is still of utmost importance. “In regard to public health, Maritime NZ will be releasing guidance for ports in the next few weeks.

We are waiting on that first and will then be working through some desktop exercises with our local stakeholder group, including Te Whatu Ora – Te Matau a Māui Hawke’s Bay (formerly Hawke’s Bay District Health Board) and NZ Customs.” A big game changer for Napier Port this cruise season is the new 350-metre 6 Wharf (formally called Te Whiti), which is multipurpose and capable of berthing the largest cruise vessels coming to New Zealand, including the Oasis-class liners, as well as container and bulk cargo vessels.

“Our marine team are still in the planning stages, including pilot marine simulator trials, for berthing cruise vessels at 6 Wharf and so it is too early to confirm the exact berth for the arrival of the first cruise ship of the season.”

Given the location of the port, the city of Napier is the first to benefit from the influx of tourists disembarking from the ships. Napier City Council manager business and tourism Steve Gregory says the council plays a significant role in Hawke’s Bay’s tourism offering, being responsible for some of the region’s biggest and key visitor experiences, attractions and assets, especially for families.

“The National Aquarium of New Zealand, Par2 MiniGolf, Faraday Museum of Technology and MTG Hawke’s Bay keep many families busy for the best part of two days. All bar one are based on Marine Parade. “Next to Par2 MiniGolf is the Napier i-SITE Visitor Centre, which was recently announced a Tier 1 site. This is the top tier for visitor centres, as outlined in the i-SITE NZ Future Network strategy.” Steve says council staff work closely with Hawke’s Bay Tourism, including on regional marketing campaigns.

“Recent campaigns targeting our key market of Wellington/lower North Island have been very successful. We’re close enough to attract people from the capital for long weekends. “Given three quarters of our visitors annually are domestic rather than international, this sector locally has been able to survive the worst of COVID-19.” When it comes to promoting the region to cruise ship passengers, Steve says the ship companies pass on information about the region they are visiting to each passenger planning to disembark the night before arriving. “Independent cruise passengers are welcomed at the wharf and given a map and some information about independent tours (tours that are not booked through the cruise ship).

Ambassadors and consultants at the Napier i-SITE Visitor Centre answer any questions passengers have regarding gardens, walks, places of interest and free things to do.” He says that information about the cruise ships coming into port are given to Napier retailers and tour operators.

A communications plan for this coming season is currently being worked on. Hamish Saxton says that Napier has always attracted positive reviews from passengers, particularly due to the Art Deco architecture. “Compared with some other New Zealand ports, the ease and speed of shuttles from the ship to the CBD has positive benefits for passenger experience and excursions.

Napier Port, Napier i-SITE and Hawke’s Bay Tourism are currently working through a return to cruise strategy, which allows us to identify any potential concerns.” He says that Hawke’s Bay Tourism sees its role as acting as a facilitator between the region’s tourism providers and those organisations that sell tours and activities on behalf of, and onboard, cruise ships.

“We create introductions and networking opportunities that ensure Hawke’s Bay and our operators make the most of this captive audience. Hawke’s Bay Tourism also provides information for onboard marketing, we participate in New Zealand Cruise Association events, and we take responsibility for general relationship management within this sector. We are members of the New Zealand Cruise Association, along with Napier i-SITE and Napier Port.”

Hamish says there is certainly a lot for cruise ship passengers to do when they get into port, with options ranging from the onboard recommended/endorsed tours to those the passenger organises independently. Some of the more popular activities or excursions include Art Deco vintage car and walking tours, gannet tours at Cape Kidnappers, food and wine tours, farm experiences, sightseeing experiences and Napier retail.

“It is also worth noting that there are ships where crew may be able to disembark. Some of the key activities they enjoy include cycle hire, cafes, retail and gyms.” Hamish says that it is important to view cruise ship visits as events. “As information has already been provided to the cruise lines months in advance, the work of Hawke’s Bay Tourism is largely done by the time the ship gets here. Then it is the role of Napier Port to manage the disembarkation process, and the Napier i-SITE Visitor Centre to assist with any booking and information enquiries.

“Collectively, we’ll be ensuring that our members and the Napier Business Association have the information to understand the schedules and ship profiles so that they can make informed decisions about staff resources and opening hours.”

Hamish says that while cruise ships don’t come in port for a specific purpose such as Art Deco weekend, two ships will be in port for the next festival and are expected to bring in nearly 30,000 visitors. For local tourism operators, the news is just in time. October 24 will be a day of celebration for Gannet Safaris Overland, of which 38 percent of its business comes from the cruise industry.

General manager Sophie Phillips says their team is made up of passionate drivers/guides who love highlighting the wonderful Cape Kidnappers and sharing their knowledge of the gannets, Hawke’s Bay’s history and the wildlife sanctuary. “October 24 will be a celebration day for sure!

It will be wonderful to welcome cruise passengers back into Hawke’s Bay. The cruise industry made up 38 percent of our business before the boarders closed, followed by another good 32 percent of international visitors. This has of course left a huge gap over the last two and a half seasons. “We managed to keep all of our staff on, be it with a very minimal roster. We had to put a halt on pretty much everything with minimal budget available.”

Sophie says the company focused on the domestic market and in particular regions within a certain drive time of Hawke’s Bay. “It’s certainly looking and feeling like it’s going to be all guns blazing this season but we will take it in small steps.”

Sophie recently had the experience of going to Los Angeles with Tourism Minister Stuart Nash and Tourism New Zealand. “The event is Kiwi Link and it is held over three days. There was an exciting buzz that New Zealand has opened its borders again and, of course, finally now our maritime borders are open too. Promoting Hawke’s Bay as a region and Gannet Safaris Overland was a huge success.”