All aboard   6 Oct 2006

Rachel Tiffen

Surrounded by ocean and dotted with ports, New Zealand is the perfect cruise ship destination. Rachel Tiffen sets sail on her own voyage of discovery into the latest tourism trend.

CRUISING: Close your eyes and point at a map of New Zealand. It doesn’t matter where that determined digit lands. On any given spot – be that paddock, hilltop, lakefront or rugby sideline – the ocean lies in wait. Each of the nation’s main cities has the seaside at its doorstep, or encircling its stoop.

Stroll along the waterfront from Auckland’s dock, and the bustling Viaduct basin rolls in to view. Glide in at Tauranga and behold the mighty "Mauao" (or Mount Maunganui) on your right, or the harbour-fronted city on your left. Head over the Port Hills from Lyttelton, and Christchurch waits patiently, with its sprawling parks and old English structures. We bathe in it, we surf on it, we eat from it. Some of our most spectacular spots can only be accessed by it. New Zealand is all about ocean. So what better way to visit the water-locked country, than aboard a luxurious liner?

Some wise souls have already cottoned on. The "floating resort" holiday is fast becoming a sojourn of choice and New Zealand is putting its modest hand up as a port of call, or linking pinkies with its friend across the ditch.

While New Zealand has featured on world cruise itineraries for some time, it is now a destination in its own right. It earns its keep as a tiny nation with numerous ports and excursions.

Solely Tasman liners, as well as globetrotters, will make hundreds of trips this coming season – drawing tourists from all over the world. The vast majority of these hail from North America, so there is a marketing drive directed at the United Kingdom and Australia. Cruise itineraries are varied and punters can opt for five, 12 or 14-day trips.

One five-day voyage from Auckland to the Bay of Islands is a snapshot of the North Island at its scenic best. Passengers can stretch their legs and walk off gourmet ship food on guided hikes, or hop on inflatable zodiacs to explore tucked-away ocean refuges such as Mokohinau Island and Whangamumu. Local lecturers frequently join the ranks, providing colourful commentary on the area.

For the full, double-island experience, cruise-goers can board the spacious Oceanic Princess for 12 nights of New Zealand exploration. Cruising out of the Hauraki Gulf, this vessel winds its way down the coastline, ending up in the heart of Fiordland. White Island, Gisborne, the Marlborough Sounds and Kaikoura are just a scattering of the striking stop-offs along the way. What better way to cap off a fortnight of rugged scenery, intermingled with golden beaches, authentic Maori culture and rare wildlife, than a trip to Doubtful Sound. Its endless maze of bubbling waterways will have you booking your next cruise.

Gorgeous scenery aside, these cruises are great news for New Zealand’s economy. Apart from paying to be wined, dined, manicured and maybe even taught to disco-dance onboard, these voyagers will splash out ashore. They will shop for buzzy bees, tikis and silver ferns in New Zealand towns and cities, visit Te Papa, and pay to see a traditional Maori show at Rotorua. They might even consider long-term investment. And while sailing around New Zealand’s shores they will eat, drink and bathe in Kiwi goods. So will the crew members who service them. Onboard chefs are happy to cater for those who prefer their own national cusine, but local delights such as wild hare, green-lipped mussels and whitebait are guaranteed to tempt a few more adventurous souls.

Statistics confirm the economic rewards of the industry. A cool $136.9 million in direct expenditure poured into New Zealand during the 2005/2006 cruise season, generating the equivalent of 2130 full-time jobs. This figure covers visits from 66,870 passengers and 32,000 crew – who together correspond to a staggering 38.5 per cent jump from the 2004/2005 season. Number crunchers say each cruiser generates about $2040 in value for our economy. And the industry is expected to grow.

Not surprisingly, Cruise New Zealand’s Craig Harris is thrilled with the trend. The cruise marketing group’s chief executive says after 100 per cent growth in the last five years, numbers are sure to climb further. Those in the industry echo his optimism.

Air Tahiti Nui manager Mark Hutchison says more and more companies are tapping directly into New Zealand’s cruise market. "Either that or they’re adding a substantial component into their regional cruise programme over the next few years," he says. His airliner is one of the smaller players, but a significant player nonetheless. Acting as a "boutique leisure carrier" primarily for North Americans and Europeans, Air Tahiti Nui works with passengers as they join or leave a cruise in New Zealand. One stop-off option to French Polynesia is particularly attractive for customers flying long haul.

Tourism Dunedin’s Kate Reeve says New Zealand is a "hot destination" at the moment, but that its perceived safety plays a big part in that. "The cruise market is very fickle," she warns.

So how do cruise companies market New Zealand? Do they flag the "NZ" tag in favour of "LOTR" with Peter Jackson as Prime Minister, or manage to resist the urge? A quick internet search unearths some lovely advertorial pitches – void of hobbits and wizards. "Stunning scenery and a place to get away from it all", is obviously hooking many a traveller.

On its website, cruiseline giant P&O urges travellers to visit New Zealand – "every nature lover’s dream". "From the bubbling mud pools of Rotorua, you’ll find a wealth of natural splendours. Call at Bay of Islands and in addition to abundant marine life you’ll find a unique insight into colonial New Zealand," it promises.

And for the less nature-inclined … "It’s not all about scenery, there’s a lively city life to discover too. Situated on a promontory between two bays, Auckland is virtually surrounded by water and is New Zealand’s largest, most vibrant city. The redeveloped pierside offers intimate bars and splendid restaurants, while the harbour is a constantly shifting panorama of yachts that has earned the city its nickname, the ‘City of Sails’. The city is also known for its ethnic dining, glittering skyscrapers and boundless optimism."

And that’s New Zealand in a nutshell. A small, oceanic country with a plethora of options. Steve Parker, who manages online cruise selling outfit ICruise, says New Zealand will never be a Mexican Rivieria, but it is certainly making its mark.

And once a cruiser, always a cruiser, it seems. "Eighty per cent of first-time cruisers will cruise again and that’s a fact," he says. "It’s the fastest growing holiday product in the world – the cruise rather than the resort stay – because of value for money."

This brings about the final, crunch question: cost. If you’re clenching, relax a little. Bearing in mind that prices include accommodation, up to eight courses of food each day and onboard attractions, it isn’t too painful.

Parker is hesitant to quote exact prices and offers a ballpark range. But before we get into the nitty gritty, consider this. Fourteen days and 14 nights aboard a rocking, gliding palatial paradise. No airport transfers, no baggage delays, everything you could possibly want at your fingertips. When it suits, you can disembark and have a wander through the local shops. Or take up any of the offered excursions. Or if you would rather, stay onboard and knock back a strawberry daiquiri. Maybe take a dip and soak up some rays.

Now let’s get to the money. Prices range from about NZ$3,500 to $9,000 – depending on number of nights, level of luxury and the type of room booked. Who is forking out so far? Statistics show the majority of our cruise visitors hail from the United States – with Americans making up 35.5 per cent of last year’s market share. New Zealanders exploring their own land are next with 22.5 per cent, closely followed by the Aussies on 19.5 per cent. Just over 10 per cent of cruisers travel downunder from the United Kingdom, and Canadians, Japanese and the Swiss represent a couple of per cent each.

But for some travellers, destination is secondary to the ship itself. Cast an eye down a list of features and you may understand why. These floating resorts offer everything a passenger could feasibly want. If wining and dining is your prerogative, there are bars and clubs a-plenty. For the fitness-conscious there is everything from gyms, pools and courts, to mini-golf courses, jogging tracks and climbing walls. Care for a manicure or a new do? Pop into the salon. Or put on your rhythm shoes for a bit of onboard salsa dancing. Cruise ships also cater to families, with babysitting, playrooms and kiddie pools often available. Alternatively leave the sprogs at home and test out the hot tub.

The onboard options are endless. New Zealand’s onshore opportunities are plentiful. Why not combine the two?

Ports of origin:

• USA – 35.5% • NZ – 22.5% • Australia – 19.5% • UK – 10.1% • Germany – 4.1% • Canada – 3.6% • Japan – 1.5% • Switzerland – 0.1% • Other – 3.3%

– NZinspired magazine, October 2006

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