Australia cruise passenger numbers: Sydney struggles with capacity as Melbourne sees growth in ships

The astronomic growth of the Australian cruise industry may be slowing down due to Sydney's capacity constraints, according to peak cruise body Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Australia is the world's fifth-largest cruising nation, with 1.34 million passengers in 2017. In 2007, the number was just 250,000.

Royal Caribbean, which has the largest ship in Australian waters, Ovation of the Seas, has increased its number of ships from one in 2007 to five in 2019 to keep up with demand.

However, the industry's growth may be slowing down. The number of Australians who took cruises in 2017 increased only 3.1 per cent from the previous year, compared to the 19.4 per cent increase average of the last decade.

Part of the reason for this is that Sydney, which accounts for more than half of the country's cruise passengers, currently has its posts at capacity during peak season. There are 344 cruise ship visits forecast for Sydney in 2018-2019, a decrease from the 352 visits in 2017-18.

Six ships are making their first visits to Australia this cruising season.

The 2650-passenger Majestic Princess, the newest and largest Princess Cruise ship to sail in Australian waters, made its inaugural visit on September 15 to Sydney where it will homeport until March.

German-owned AIDAaura and Viking Ocean Cruises' Viking Orion visited Sydney in December, with latter containing the first ever planetarium aboard a cruise ship.

Silversea Cruises' flagship Silver Muse made its inaugural visit on January 6, marking the first time in a decade the luxury cruise line brought a new vessel to Australia.


See also: Silver Muse makes its maiden appearance in Australia

Ponant's Le Laperouse will visit on February 7, followed by MSC Magnifica on March 18.

Apart from Le Paperouse, all the ships will also make maiden visits to Melbourne's Station Pier.

White Bay, the second largest Sydney cruise terminal after Circular Quay, is inaccessible to many larger ships, with ships more than 51 metres tall unable to pass under the Sydney Harbour Bridge to dock there. As large cruise ships increasingly replace small ones, the issue is growing.

Some mega cruise ships are also unable to dock at Circular Quay as their width exceeds safe harbour traffic management.

The NSW government is looking for a third port location. In 2018, it ruled out Garden Island as a potential site. Botany Bay is still under consideration.

A CLIA Australasia report in 2017 found that in 2016-17, NSW accounted for 58 per cent of the cruise industry's $5.3 billion contribution to the national economy, but its share had dropped 10 per cent over the past two years due to Sydney reaching capacity for ships.

As a result, Victoria experienced a 12 per cent increase, taking 7 per cent share of the national contribution.

Melbourne's Station Pier has seen a steady increase in the number of cruise ship visits. 2018-19 will see 120 ships visit the port, up from 108 in 2017-18 and 88 in 2016-17. Station Pier can accommodate three cruise ships at a time.

"As long as infrastructure and regulatory policy allows, we will increasingly see vessels home-porting outside of Sydney in cities including Brisbane, Melbourne, Fremantle and Adelaide, and visiting regional ports such as Broome, Eden, Geraldton and Gladstone, to cater to this demand," says CLIA Australasia Managing Director Joel Katz.

Cunard's Queen Elizabeth, one of the world's most famous cruise ships, has eschewed the iconic backdrop of Sydney Harbour for its Australian homeport in 2019-20, instead choosing to base itself in Melbourne.

See also: Cruise giant Queen Elizabeth to be based in Melbourne for record season

Royal Caribbean International also announced it will base the 2850-passenger luxury ship Celebrity Eclipse in Melbourne during the 2020-21 summer reason.

Regional ports are also seeing an increase in ship visits. The number of ships visiting Newcastle and Eden in NSW is on the rise, with 15 and 17 ships expected respectively for 2018-19.

Wollongong's Port Kembla started receiving cruise ship visits in 2016 and has welcomed six cruise ships since, with five more scheduled until 2021.

Leigh Colacino, Wollongong City Councillor and chair of Cruise Wollongong, agrees interest in regional cruising is growing. He says while it's taken a lot of time and effort to get the word out about Wollongong as a destination, he's seen interest from cruise lines.

"When I explain what we've got they get very interested and go 'this is what we need!'. Because the cruise industry is growing at such a huge rate they've got to deliver that new experience," Colacino says.

"If they're going on a 11- or 20-day cruise they don't alway want to be going to a tropical island or capital city, they want to experience more on those trips."

First time ship visits to Sydney this season

Majestic Princess – Sep 15 2018

AIDAaura – Dec 12 2018

Viking Orion – Dec 16 2018

Silver Muse – Jan 6 2019

Le Laperouse – Feb 7 2019

MSC Magnifica – Mar 18 2019

First time ship visits to Melbourne

Majestic Princess – Oct 12 2018

AIDAura – Dec 16 2018

Viking Orion – Dec 19 2018

Silver Muse – Jan 9 2019

MSC Magnifica – Mar 21 2019

See also: Cruise ship insider secrets revealed: 25 things you never knew about

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Voyager of the Seas, not Ovation of the Seas, was the largest ship to be based in Australia.