Coronavirus and cruising in Australia: NSW town of Eden waits for ships to return

When they began building their striking new $6 million, Philip Cox-designed cruising Welcome Centre, the townsfolk of Eden couldn't have conceived that by the time it was complete there would be no passengers to welcome.

The Eden Welcome Centre, located on the town's Fishermen's Co-op wharf site, is due for completion in October, just in time for the now-uncertain 2020-21 cruise season. It isn't the only piece of infrastructure awaiting an economy-boosting passenger ship.

A $44 million wharf extension and upgrade, built to eliminate the need for tender boats to ferry passengers from ship to shore as well as to accommodate vessels of up to 325 metres in length, opened only last year.

Unlike many of their city brethren, the citizens of the NSW far South Coast town, about 50 kilometres from the NSW-Victorian border, appear not to have joined the legion of cruise critics that have emerged following the Ruby Princess tragedy.

Eden, famed for its whale watching, seafood and seafaring heritage, has suffered a trifecta of cruel setbacks in recent times having endured a bushfire disaster, the onset of an unexpected pandemic and now the uncertainty that surrounds cruising and tourism.

Any return of cruising would offer the town, with a population of nearly 3500, some semblance of hope with Eden a microcosm of the economic benefits that cruise demonstrably generates for such place. It's one of three dozen or so other regional cruising centres scattered around the nation's coastline, as far flung as Broome to Bundaberg and Kangaroo Island to Thursday Island.

Certainly, the cruise industry confronts a difficult task in restoring its sullied reputation as a salubrious travel experience. And in order to win the right to return to ports like Eden, it will need to satisfy federal and state regulators of the credibility of its upgraded health and hygiene credentials.

For Jenny Robb, owner and operator of Kiah Wilderness Tours, an eco-kayaking attraction located 11 kilometres south of Eden, revenue from cruising passengers had been "the cream on top" for her business and one of the catalysts for her originally launching the company.

"The penetration of the cruise market is substantial," she said. "There are some long-term benefits in that it introduced people to the area who had never been here and they'd say, 'wow, I never knew this was all here.' They'd then come back and visit with the families." The Federal Minister for Tourism, Simon Birmingham, has indicated that cruise ships would be the last piece of the shattered domestic tourism jigsaw to come together. But nationally, state and local governments, while cool on cruising now, are spending, or have recently spent, hundreds millions of dollars on port facilities that risk becoming white elephants.

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Designed to assist regional centres reap the demonstrable benefits of cruising, Queensland alone has invested $340 million on wharf facilities in tourism-dependent Cairns and Townsville.

Jill Abel, chief executive of the Australian Cruise Association, believes that once restrictions on cruise ships have been lifted the introduction of the extensive new onboard health and hygiene measures being explored, Australians will return to ocean-going holidays.

Abel said: "The work that we have done with local and state governments developing infrastructure and access to regional ports around the country will definitely be an asset in getting Australian cruise passengers out beyond the major capital city gateways to the regional areas that they may not have planned to visit prior to this."

Peter Whiter, president of the Eden Chamber of Commerce, favours cruising's return to the town provided it can address the biosecurity concerns around it. He said that cruising had grown in Eden to such an extent that both a high and low season was even envisaged by 2025.

Cruising generated a significant amount of income for a variety of business in and around the town including retailers, shopkeepers, coach operators, tourist attractions and even the local pub where cruise passengers would routinely order counter meals during their sojourns ashore.

Mr Whiter estimates that each cruise ship visits generated between $150,000 to $250,000 for the town with as many 22 vessels having been scheduled for the 2019-20 season – up from 15 in 2018-19 - before the pandemic curtailed the season.

Where cruise ships in Australia go. Graphic for Anthony Dennis story CruiseEdenGraphic

Joel Katz, managing director, Australasia, of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), said that dozens of regional communities around Australia welcome cruise ships, including remote locations. Without cruising, many such places would be denied have the opportunity to host so many domestic and international visitors.

"On a day-visit, the average domestic cruise passenger spends $174 while they're on shore, and an international visitor spends an average $211," he said. "When multiplied across an entire ship, the visitor spending can be many hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single day."

Leanne Barnes, general manager of Bega Valley Shire Council, which encompasses Eden, said that no formal consideration had been given to the return of cruise ships to the Sapphire Coast following the onset of COVID-19 and the controversy around the industry.

However, the council has supported the cruise industry's involvement in the region since the late 1990s and was instrumental in the creation of the Cruise Eden business association. She said provided that the safety of cruise ships from a health and hygiene standpoint could be demonstrated the likelihood is that they would be welcomed back.

Mr Whiter remains philosophical of the plight confronted by the the cruise industry and is sanguine about the future of the Eden Welcome Centre (which will also serve as the Eden Visitor Information Centre year around) which he hopes will one day be able to serve its purpose of greeting passengers from ships.

"My opinion on what's going to happen is that a lot of things have been changed by COVID-19 but a lot of things like cruising were perfectly fine prior to COVID-19. It's now not safe to be in an office during the pandemic so it's not so simple to say, 'the bloody cruise ships caused this problem.'"

See also: 'Lucky': Stuck on a virus-free ship for 35 days after leaving Australia

See also: Only one country was willing to help trapped Australian cruise passengers

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