By Bruce Piper

cruise pacificMuch has been made in recent weeks of the massive growth in Australian cruising, which in 2014 cracked the one million passenger milestone, six years ahead of the original 2020 forecast. The relentless deployment of additional capacity in local waters looks set to see this continue, with Royal Caribbean in particular placing ever-larger and ever-newer ships down under. That’s not to mention Carnival Corporation, which has redefined its P&O brand with major revamps of on-board product and the addition of two ships later this year meaning it will have five year-round P&O vessels operating from Australia – alongside other Carnival brands with a strong presence such as Princess Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines and Holland America.

Although there’s growth across the board, including in international based voyages and river cruising, the local big-ship deployments by their very nature mean that many more Australians are exploring the South Pacific on cruise ships. The figures reveal that the region enjoyed a 39% “destination share”, attracting more than 392,000 passengers last year. That was a 19% increase on 2013, and CLIA points out that since 2010 the number of Australians cruising in the South Pacific has more than doubled.

This is all great news for Australian travel agents and the local economy. However there are also significant implications for our South Pacific island neighbours, and it’s hoped that they will also be able to harness the boom to boost their economies. Despite the popular images of these places as “flop and drop” destinations where smiling locals cater to your every whim, the reality is that many people in the South Pacific have much lower living standards than we enjoy. Tourism – and in particular the booming cruise market – is well placed to make a big difference.

Regional destinations are working to capture the potential, with the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) recently commissioning the Pacific Cruise Market Research and Intelligence Project. This study gives a comprehensive overview of the cruise sector in the region and concludes that while there are significant opportunities, destinations need to strategically target cruising to maximise the benefit of the sector.

The report confirms that the biggest Pacific destination is Noumea in New Caledonia, which will this year welcome a whopping 162 calls by international cruise ships. That’s significantly ahead of the number two destination, Port Vila in Vanuatu with 113 calls. Other popular ports include Lifou and the Isle of Pines with just over 100 calls each, followed by Mystery Island at around 70.

Given that few Australians take cruises longer than two weeks, it’s likely that both New Caledonia and Vanuatu will continue to be the first choice for itineraries given their relative proximity to the east coast capitals. A recent economic impact study conducted for Vanuatu showed the cruise industry brought almost $35 million to the country in 2013, with each ship call accounting for over $260,000 on average.
Second tier destinations including Fiji, Papua New Guinea and French Polynesia are also likely to benefit from the growth, because the expanded deployments mean there is a continual hunger for new itineraries and ports of call.

The SPTO report identifies a further 12 “under-developed cruise destinations” such as Tonga, Timor-Leste, Niue and the Solomon Islands, which usually only see larger vessels during repositioning voyages. Expedition ships are also seen as having potential for these countries. “Expedition lines, especially, are dedicated to taking their upscale guests to undiscovered, out-of-the-way places. The Pacific has many… indeed, as the large ships adopt more island/beach/village calls, the Expedition ship operators move on to seek new ones,” the report says.

Governments across the region are grappling with the challenges identified in the report. “The most pressing need for many otherwise attractive Pacific destinations is hydrographic surveys to prepare marine charts, without which access for ships of any size is not possible.” That’s not to mention shore-side infrastructure such as port facilities, jetties, coaches, guides for shore excursions, shopping, and guest services.

The report also highlights the importance of destinations making themselves attractive to cruise ship passengers. “The fact that many islands of the Pacific may be excellent destinations is not enough to be on cruise itineraries – there has to be consumer appetite for them… promoting their attractions is the role of the Pacific Island country and its NTO, not the cruise line,” the report notes.

A key opportunity identified is to develop a regional fly-cruise hub which would make it possible to offer short cruises, going deeper into the Pacific and touching more islands, beaches and villages. The report urges regional cooperation to build the industry, concluding that “with good planning, management and collaboration all Pacific island countries stand to benefit – economically and socially” from the cruise boom.

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