The boss of the NSW ports is pushing to make Port Kembla Sydney’s “third” cruise terminal, allowing overseas cruisers to enjoy the Opera House and Harbour Bridge views while Aussies sail out of the Illawarra.
Port Authority of NSW chief executive and director Phil Holliday is gathering support for the plan among political leaders and state bureaucrats so he can prepare a business case.
But it had not alleviated the lack of capacity that is keeping out companies like Norwegian Cruise Lines, whose head Harry Sommer has said he won’t bring his latest ships Down Under until he can get the right slots on Sydney Harbour.
Sommer’s claim is that American cruisers want that magical view of Sydney’s skyline and won’t settle for anything less. Whether Australians will feel the same is the big test.
For Holliday, it’s about reality. Attempts to win a share of the Sydney naval base Garden Island have failed, Yarra Bay has been turned down and there are simply no further options. Cruise continues to grow and NSW needs a place to put that growth.
“There are options and there are realistic options,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of mileage in Garden Island, for example. But I’m not as young as I used to be and I would like to see some new infrastructure delivered while I’m still alive!”
As a result, Holliday says his team is looking for viable solutions that would allow for expansion. The coming season will see some 70 ships sailing in Australia. But many global lines – MSC, Norwegian’s newer ships, for instance – won’t come to Australia unless they can give their guests the unique Aussie experience.
For most, that’s the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
So Holliday’s idea is simple. The Aussie-based ships with local passengers would be based at Port Kembla. Vessels with mostly overseas passengers would be at the Overseas Passenger Terminal or White Bay.
Having floated the idea, now he is busily gathering opinions before going to the NSW Government with a request for funding for the business case.
Nothing is cut and dried, of course. The same case was made for Port Botany. But aggressive campaigning by local residents and the politics sunk the plan.
Holliday believes Port Kembla is more supportive, and local politicians have already given the plan support.
“Let’s accept that that Port Kembler is a strong option – and it is important to put a little caveat in there that we don’t own the port.
“NSW ports are the port owners and, for anything to happen there, they need to be on board. It’s got to fit in with all their other aspirations.
“But I think that’s all achievable. We have had conversations with them, but there’s a long way for those conversations to go up.”
Terminals to operate in unison
Holliday believes that his organisation would run the cruise operations of Port Kembla “so the three terminals operate in a kind of unison, not in competition”.
So Port Kembla would become the turnaround port – where cruises start and end and where passengers get off – and Sydney would be for “transit” passengers who are on their way to other destinations.
And that would have a beneficial impact on pre- and post-experiences, offering the Illawarra the chance to suggest vacation experiences to cruise passengers in the region, while Sydney encourages overseas tourists to stay longer in the city.
“That’s a key part,” says Holliday. “There is a significant number of passengers that do pre- and post-cruise. If you take that model and say your cruise is going to start in Port Kembla, then you, you now have an option.
“You can spend that pre or post in Port Kembla and there’s plenty to do there and there are things to see. But if in your bucket list, you want to see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, you can spend your pre- and post- in Sydney. We’re just an hour north and realistically what you’re most likely to do is do both.”
Holliday admits it is early days. But he has received some support.
“There’s a process for us to follow as a government entity to take others on the journey and say to people: we think this is a strong option.
“And if there’s agreement on it being the lead option, then we start to do a bit more or spend a bit more money, do a full business case on it and take it to its conclusion.”
Positives out of the pandemic
On the coming season, Holliday says “there are not too many positives you can pull out of the pandemic but one of them is that actually it did free up some capacity”.
“What we are seeing is greater diversity in the number of players that are here. Disney and Virgin being obvious examples of that. And I think the more the merrier – that’s a more sustainable model for us,” he said.
“I see that as a real positive that there are new players in the market, that’s not a criticism of the old players, but it’s a having new players in the market.
“It just shows that there is that demand there and that links into the conversation we’ve just been having about additional capacity.”
Holliday says his organisation is encouraging more cruise not just in Sydney but across NSW.
“We’re having these conversations with NSW ports where we’re going through the planning process to extend the capabilities down in Eden.
“We’re working hard to increase the, the attractiveness of New South Wales.”