Sydney’s cruise industry ‘dead in the water’

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Look out at Sydney Harbour on an average spring day and you’ll see the sparkling blue water, seagulls circling above and the foreshore buzzing with life.

But gaze upon the water today and you’ll notice something is different – an eerie quietness that has descended on Sydney’s most iconic location and not just on land.

Sydney Showboats have been operating cruises seven days a week since 1987, carrying more than 300,000 passengers around the harbour every year.

Sydney Harbour has fallen silent during the pandemic with cruise businesses suffering from a drop in tourism. (Rhett Wyman)

But they haven’t run a cruise since March.

“The pandemic has decimated a 30-year business, it’s left the industry dead in the water,” General Manager of Australia Cruise Group Nick Lester told nine.com.au.

“Charter boats cost millions of dollars a year to maintain and it costs us half-a-million dollars to just keep our fleet alongside the wharf before we even run a cruise.

“People are happy to go to their local pizza place or cafe, but general experiences like a Sydney Showboats dinner cruise … people feel that’s much more risky and they’re just not coming.”

The steps of the iconic Sydney Opera House are seen during Sydney’s partial COVID-19 lockdown. (Dominic Lorrimer)

Mr Lester said while NSW Health have tried to provide a system for businesses to operate, implementing generic COVID-safe plans on a boat is easier said than done.

“You’ve got the COVID-safe plans on the NSW Health website but when you start delving into it and try to tailor it to your particular business,” he said.

“A boat is a totally different beast, you need to have a handle on the marine side and how you handle safety but when you go to NSW Health and ring them up, they can’t help you.”

Despite being designed to cater to 400 people, boat capacities are capped at 150 and stringent cleaning and hygiene protocols must be in place.

Cruise companies are spending tens of thousands of dollars to keep boats docked at the Sydney wharves. (Brook Mitchell)

“Vessels are also governed under the same, if not more stringent bodies … our compliance is enormous and that’s before we even get to COVID,” Mr Lester said.

On top of this, Mr Lester worries about negative perceptions of cruises fuelled over the course of the pandemic.

“The whole thing is such a minefield of trying to crank up a business that last year turned over upward of $20 million and this year is doing nothing,” he said.

“Our biggest fear factor is opening to then be shut again or getting a fine that you can’t afford to pay because there’s no money coming through.”

With international tourism essentially non-existent, Mr Lester said the industry has lost the vast majority of customers and is now relying on locals to get out on the water.

A general view of Circular Quay on10 July, 2020.
Ferries are seen docked at Circular Quay in July. Cruises are among many businesses struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. (Brook Mitchell)

Mr Lester said while he supports the push for tourism in regional NSW, he feels businesses like his have been overlooked.

“I’m a local Sydneysider and I love NSW, it’s such a beautiful and diverse landscape we’ve got but the support is so much more for the regions and everybody is going to Jervis (Bay), or going to Byron, or going to Dubbo and Sydney is really hurting,” he said.

“The regions would be hurting so much from bushfires and they really, really need our support but it would be nice if there was something to say Sydney Harbour is still here.

“The bigger you are, the harder you’re hurt.”

Generic. Commuters, pedestrians, in Darling Harbour, Sydney on August 4, 2020. coronavirus.
Scattered pedestrians walk along the mostly deserted promenade near Darling Harbour in August. (Dominic Lorrimer)

As the days warm up and holidays season approaches, Mr Lester is encouraging people to consider Sydney Harbour as an option for an evening out with friends, family and colleagues.

“The water is so beautiful, the water is so clear, we’ve had some gorgeous spring days and we need the support for people to come back,” he said.

“If we’re not careful, there’s not going to be much of a hospitality industry left because people are slowly drowning.

“All we’re going to be doing over summer is mitigating loss. No one is going to be making money.”

After months of hardship, Mr Lester is hopeful New Year’s Eve celebrations could be the golden ticket to reviving businesses.

“I certainly appreciate that City of Sydney has a really tough decision in front of them to run that event or not but if they don’t, the damage it’ll do to the economy is enormous,” he said.

“It’s our lifeblood. We make most of our profit in one night and that’s not just us, its other boats, restaurants, bars down at Circular Quay.”