By Paul Nicolaou, Executive Director, Business Sydney

It’s not rocket science. Just ask any international or domestic cruise lover and they will tell you what they want from a cruise holiday in our part of the world.

They want the unparalleled “Sydney Harbour Experience” of sailing in or out of the world’s most beautiful harbour with, for arriving international guests, the Sydney Opera House port side and Sydney Harbour Bridge to starboard. 

We all know that Sydney Harbour is bursting at the seams during the peak summer cruise season where, this season, we are seeing cruise ships having to anchor mid-harbour in Athol Bay because no berth is available. 

Sydney Harbour’s port infrastructure dilemma came into stark relief with Carnival Luminosa’s unscheduled call to Sydney to dodge a Queensland cyclone, which saw passengers being brought ashore on the ship’s tender vessels. 

Although special circumstances were involved in this case, it quickly became apparent that numerous ships were seeing the “house full” sign over the summer. It’s not a good look for our city to see passengers being shuttled ashore in a Pacific Islands-style tendering operation. 

Harbour gridlock stunt cruise holidays

Another milestone for the return of cruising as The Pacific Adventure meets Pacific Explorer
Pacific Explorer passes Pacific Adventure at Fort Denison.

Sydney Harbour gridlock is holding cruise tourism back and that’s potentially a missed opportunity for our city and for the many businesses that reap the benefits of cruising. 

In Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia’s latest economic study, NSW took the lion’s share of cruise-related economic activity worth $5.6 billion nationally in 2022-23 with $2.8 billion of it in NSW, mostly in Sydney. 

It would be unfortunate if growth in Sydney’s economic share was held back because of port infrastructure constraints, an issue that has been bubbling without resolution for too many years. 

Now, let’s be clear on this point. Business Sydney is 100 per cent for Sydney. You would expect this from an organisation that represents the Sydney business community and wants our city to be part of the solution. It just so happens the cruise fraternity wants this too. 

If it’s not rocket science that cruise devotees want the Sydney experience first and foremost, it’s equally not rocket science that we need to find a Sydney Harbour solution. 

This is why Business Sydney continues to advocate for shared access at Garden Island during the peak of the main cruise season. 

Garden Island solution

It might not be fashionable to press for the Garden Island solution at this time but it will come as no surprise if the pendulum ultimately comes back to it before too long. 

It is now more than five years since former State Liberal leader and Navy Reserve officer Peter Collins recommended the shared use of Garden Island after leading an inquiry into Sydney’s cruise infrastructure needs. 

Mr Collins rejected the idea of putting a cruise terminal at Port Botany and, as we know, any plans to have cruise ships at Yarra Bay have been sensibly rejected. 

So, where does that leave Sydney and its love affair with cruising? There is renewed media interest in the subject of cruising and Sydney Harbour, and no doubt there are hushed discussions in the corridors of power and inside shipping lines. 

All of these strands need to be brought to a point. Business Sydney thinks it’s time for a cruise summit involving cruise lines, the industry association, the NSW Government and businesses. 

The specific agenda item should be how to keep the cruise tourism phenomenon growing in Sydney Harbour. We think Garden Island is the solution but this could be a forum where other good ideas emerge. 

The situation is getting urgent. By our count, between now and the end of March there will be around 170 cruise ship calls in Sydney Harbour. Allowing for an average of 2500 passengers per ship, we are talking about 425,000 people contributing to our city. 

It could be so much more if we can get an agreement on a Sydney Harbour solution. Richard Branson’s jocular though serious comment that travelling into space is easier than getting a cruise ship berth in Sydney should be ringing in our collective ears. 

If as a visitor he can see that Sydney is the ultimate cruise tourism attraction, we should see it too and act accordingly.