Covid and environmental concerns aren’t holding back a tourism sector that has a big footprint in New Zealand

When the Celebrity Eclipse steamed up Otago Harbour this week, the freshly painted 12-year-old vessel that can pack about 4000 passengers and crew into its 317m length broke a two-year drought.

The first visit by the Celebrity Eclipse to these waters was also the first post-Covid cruise ship to call at Port Chalmers. The government shut the borders to the potentially virus-laden vessels in March 2020, turning off a $60 million annual money tap that kept many Otago tourism operators liquid.

It’s now flowing again. Although the Celebrity Eclipse was tied up in the port for barely 12 hours, it will be back again on November 18 and make a total of nine sailings to Dunedin by the end of next April.

The second ship of the cruise season, the Grand Princess, makes a 12-hour stopover in Dunedin today.

In the October to April season, there will be more than 100 cruise liner port calls in Dunedin. According to Stats NZ, the city is second only to Auckland in the number of cruise passengers it sees.

In the 12 months to June 2019, cruise ship spending throughout the country was $570 million and 322,000 passengers went along for the ride. About half of them were Australians and more than three-quarters aged 50 and older.

According to Port Otago, cruise ships dock in Dunedin for an average of just 10 hours, not long for businesses to relieve passengers of some cash.

Most of the dosh goes to the cruise lines. Aboard Celebrity Eclipse, which is one of 63 vessels operated by Miami-based Royal Caribbean International, you can prepay when you book your berth for drinks, Wi-Fi and tips – no word on tip refunds when the waiter lets you down.

The Celebrity Eclipse appears almost close enough to touch from Aramoana spit. Photograph: Anthony Doesburg

The vessel has 21 bars and restaurants and for those pensioners among the passengers with a penchant for lawn care, a 2000sqm patch of grass.

So buoyant is the industry that the company has 10 new ships on order. With a price tag a decade ago of US$750 million for the Celebrity Eclipse, confidence is clearly sky-high.

Welcome to Ōtepoti

Fresh from the scenic wonders of Fiordland, the Celebrity Eclipse docked at 8.30am on Wednesday at Port Chalmers after squeezing between the albatross colony on Taiaroa Head and the sandy protrusion of Aramoana spit.

Not every vessel makes it safely into the harbour.

Four years ago, the Leda Maersk, a container ship similar in size to the Celebrity Eclipse, ran aground just inside the harbour mouth. If the same fate had befallen the cruise liner and its passengers washed up on the spit, they would hardly have felt welcomed by the first sign of habitation: “BUGGER OFF”, hand-written on a board dangling from a tree.

The first sign of life they would have stumbled over was a log-like leopard seal on the beach a few hundred metres away that slept on despite the vibrations of the passing 120,000-tonne liner.

Although doubtless not directed at shipwreck survivors, the pointed words on the sign do express a strand of opinion towards cruise passengers stoked by continuing Covid fears.

A warm Otago welcome. Photograph: Anthony Doesburg

Dozens of Covid cases aboard the Ovation of the Seas, another Royal Caribbean ship in New Zealand waters this week, shows such concerns are well founded. After embarking a fresh complement of passengers in Sydney, it is due in Dunedin on Wednesday.

However, when more than 10,000 people are flying into the country each day, ever-vigilant University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker says cruise ships are making only “a relatively small contribution to Covid-19 importation”.

Road works ahead

Having safely reached land at Port Chalmers, the Celebrity Eclipse passengers were met by a reception party of cheering dock workers and a fleet of buses waiting to cart them into town.

If they caught a bus, their journey would soon have been interrupted at a stop-go sign as work nears completion on a cycle path connecting the port with the city.

That will give future cruise passengers the safe green option of pedalling the 13km to the Octagon in the city centre, the only downside of which could be a lungful of fumes from the Ravensdown fertiliser works they’ll pass en route.

On the plus side, the fewer coaches the cruisers catch, the less disruption there will be for Dunedinites reliant on buses. According to a driver on an already understaffed public transport route, bus companies divert coaches and drivers to the port during cruise-liner season, affecting timetables.

Visitors to the city centre are also being affected by other major road works causing disruption – and ructions – but if allowed to be carried out to plan that will give Dunedin a little of the flavour of a European town.

The main shopping thoroughfare, George St, is getting a pedestrian-friendly makeover that will limit three blocks to one-way traffic.

However, Jules Radich, who donned the mayoral garb this week after ousting Aaron Hawkins in the local-body elections, wants to make his mark by revisiting the plan despite the work being well underway.

Those who agree with Radich – including jeweller Brent Weatherall who was elected to the city council on the same Team Dunedin ticket and has a shop in the first block getting the one-way treatment – tout a 6000-signature petition as proof of the plan’s unpopularity.

A quarter of a million cruise passengers who’ve seen a bit of the world might beg to differ.

At what cost?

For all the cruise industry’s claimed economic benefits to ports such as Dunedin, the ships are said to be a natural disaster.

Friends of the Earth calls them a catastrophe for the environment, responsible for dumping toxic waste into the sea, emitting enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and killing marine wildlife.

Life as we know it … a leopard seal at Aramoana unmoved by the Celebrity Eclipse’s passing. Photograph: Anthony Doesburg

According to the organisation, although Celebrity Eclipse owner Royal Caribbean has announced a “destination net zero” effort to limit its carbon footprint, the targets are decades away and focus on carbon offsets.

But the cruise company says it reached its 2020 goal of reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent compared with its 2005 baseline almost a year ahead of schedule.

Covid can probably be thanked.

But Covid is one of a number of reasons Bruce Mahalski, who runs Dunedin’s Museum of Natural Mystery, opposes the cruise industry.

A couple off the Celebrity Eclipse turned up at his door on Wednesday despite the museum, which is in his Royal Terrace home, not being open. Against his better judgment, he let them in.

He is surprised the cruise industry has survived the pandemic given the proven potential for shipboard spread of the virus and law suits being taken by passengers who were effectively held captive on infected vessels.

“I don’t want people off cruise ships coming here and spreading Covid. Cruise liners are incubators for spreading disease around the world.”

On top of that, he says the ships are major marine polluters and carbon emitters.

The Museum of Natural Mystery’s Bruce Mahalski. Photograph: Anthony Doesburg

Not that he gave the cruise-ship customers a lecture.

“They were just a young couple excited to see the museum.”

Although the museum is listed on the website, to which Port Otago’s site directs cruise passengers, Mahalski says he is not celebrating the return of the ships.

“I’m happy to go into bat as a local tourism operator who doesn’t want to see cruise ships back again. It just seems madness.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

Anthony Doesburg is a Dunedin-based freelance journalist.

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