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Unhappy tourism operators call on port

They provide jet thrills, adventure tours and gondola rides, and they want cruise ship customers back in Lyttelton.

High Country Explorer Tours director Rod Bennett leads a group of 38 unhappy tourism operators and activity providers who are calling on the Lyttelton Port of Christchurch (LPC) to speed up repairs to welcome cruise ships again.

LPC is yet to commit to when it will be able to take them back, leaving operators based too far from Akaroa in limbo.
Bennett and his supporters want LPC to make the repair of cruise ships facilities a priority.

“The only facility we need is a wharf – a means for people getting off ships to shore. We want it to become a priority, not a ten years wish list down the track. And we want a clear indication of when the facility will be available so the industry gets some certainty.”

LPC chairman Trevor Burt says he cannot tell when the port will be able to welcome a large number of cruise ships again.

“We’ve had some huge damage on all of our assets and we have to decide on the order of repairs on a scheduled plan.”

“We have a responsibility to a wide number of stakeholders; cruise ship is one but so is the trade of Canterbury.

“We are the lifeblood of the Canterbury region in terms of imports and exports coming in and out.”

Burt says LPC should be able to give a date for the cruise ship facilities repairs by the end of the year.

Lyttelton did receive six smaller cruise vessels in the 2012-13 summer season.

But the bulk, 86 ships carrying 143,925 passengers, went to Akaroa.

Jet Thrills director Paul Vernal says he has lost three staff and well over half a million in turnover per annum since 2011.

“Cruise ships represent 70 per cent of our business. A typical cruise ship day was worth 10 grand on average to us. But since the ships have gone into Akaroa, with the added time and transport cost, it’s just made it too expensive for a large portion of these cruise ships to use us.”

Vernal would like LPC to be more transparent about the progress of the repairs.

“It’s very frustrating for us. The port company was broken for about three days but then they managed to get back into the container port and it’s fully operational. The ships used to come into that exact same spot . . . I don’t know if there’s quite the transparency there that there could have been.”

Welcome Aboard director Michael Esposito says his business has suffered from the loss of cruise ship customers. He is fed up with waiting for LPC to announce the repairs.

“It’s been three years and we haven’t heard anything. If there was a strategy or a plan in place, we would be pretty happy with that, but it’s just been put on the sideline. It’s pretty disappointing considering the port is making a profit.”

Bennett says transport costs for operators to pick up and drop off passengers from Akaroa has forced many smaller companies out of business.

Fewer passengers are interested in booking an excursion that will require more than an hour travelling, and some customers become disgruntled when they realise how much time they need to spend in a bus, Bennett says.

Tourism operators are not the only ones struggling. Lyttelton locals told The Press in June that the harbour desperately needed the cruise ships to get local shops back on their feet.

In the absence of cruise ship visitors, the town’s 3000 residents, through Project Lyttelton, the Lyttelton Harbour Information Centre and the Lyttelton Harbour Business Association (LHBA), had to put their energies into new projects to draw people back to the town.

While visitor numbers had been slowly increasing, there was still a long way to go to get back to pre-quake levels, locals said.

But Canterbury Leisure Tours CEO Kevin Edlin says it is not all doom and gloom. His transport company now buses cruise visitors from Akaroa to Christchurch. Akaroa being farther from the city compared to Lyttelton, his margins have become higher. He says a lot of passengers prefer Akaroa over Lyttelton.

“Once Lyttelton is up and running again, a lot of cruise ships will still want to go to Akaroa,” he says.

However, Edlin supports Bennett’s efforts to get some of the cruise ships back to Lyttelton.

He says it would benefit the whole region and the country’s tourism industry.

Bennett says Lyttelton is vital to the Canterbury cruise ship industry because it is the only port in the region with the capacity to berth mega ships. Bennett says that about eight ships have cancelled their visit to Canterbury this season because Akaroa was not big enough to host them. Bennett is worried that the mega- size cruise ships the industry use now will be lost business to the region if Akaroa is the only option.

But there is more to worry about, according to Bennett. He says Akaroa does not provide enough excursions and activity opportunities to be a profitable destination for cruise liners.

Cruise companies sell excursions to passengers with high commission margins, Bennett explains. While Lyttelton had plenty on offer, Akaroa is too far from the region’s attractions, he says. As a consequence, Bennets thinks cruise lines “will simply bypass [the region] and go to ports where they can make money more easily”.

Some Akaroa residents have complained about the increase of cruise ship visits to their small town. The Press reported earlier this year that while the visits had been a boon to business, some residents felt their once quiet haven had become overcrowded in the summer.

Kiwirail passenger general manager Deborah Hume supports Bennett’s group.

“The number of cruise ships coming to the region has increased for us, but the number of passengers per ship has decreased. The quality of the visitor experience is diminished since Lyttleton cannot take cruise ships as passengers disembark with more difficulty in Akaroa, and then need to take a long bus ride to their train journey. We’d love to see Lyttleton back in action for cruise ships.”

The Press reported last month that Canterbury’s cruise earnings are expected to fall to $29.9m from $32.7m next year. Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism (CCT) industry partnerships manager Caroline Blanchfield says she feels sorry for the struggling operators and businesses, but the decision to repair Lyttelton Port is in the hands of LPC.

“We can only consult, advise and walk alongside LPC. They’ve got a big job ahead of them with insurance issues to resolve,” she says.

“No port makes money out of cruise ships, but LPC recognises the value of the cruise industry for the region and is committed to welcome them back in the future, though it is uncertain when.”

She says Akaroa is a good alternative. It can welcome ships up to 20 metres and visitors enjoy the spot.

But cruise companies prefer to get their passengers straight on to the wharf, which is not possible in Akaroa, she says. “We would really like to have Lyttelton back because bigger ships can’t come here. We need all our ports operating in New Zealand.”

_ Cecile Meier for The Press.