So much potential docking space at Garden Island

The release this week of the federal government’s $195 billion Defence White Paper understandably focused on the immediate concern of keeping Australia safe from international and domestic threats, but while certainly a distant tangent, the official release also featured clauses which carried implications for the cruise industry.

A vast array of wide-ranging subjects were considered during the consultative stages of the paper, one of which was the eternal question of Garden Island in Sydney and to what degree of assistance both it, and its multi-generational tenants The Royal Australian Navy, can provide on a shared basis to the growth of cruising and in turn, the NSW state economy.

The sector’s largest player, Carnival Australia, lodged a submission during this stage, reaffirming its desire to work together with the Navy to share berthing facilities at Garden Island during the absolute peak few months of the season, where international ships too large to fit under the Sydney Harbour Bridge jostle for space at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay. In its submission, the organisation said:

“Carnival Australia proposes a six to eight week window at Garden Island every cruise season where cruise ships could berth, with facilities provided for on‐site passenger processing. By doing this Carnival Australia would, for example, be able to have all three Cunard ships (Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria) to be in Sydney on the one day in summer of 2016/17. This would represent a landmark tourism event for Australia.” It added permanent shared access would be a win-win for both sectors.

Cruising is urgently seeking greater access to Garden Island
Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is an annual visitor to Sydney and has docked at Garden Island in the past.

Such an event would also mark yet another crowning achievement for Carnival Australia CEO Ann Sherry, who has played an instrumental part in the meteoric growth of cruising in Australia in recent years. However, the White Paper subtly appeared to dash such ambitions, at least in the short term. Referring to the future of the Defence Force, the paper said on page 104 it has to consider the “future strategic requirements” of the department beyond the next decade.

“It will also include considering the long-term future of some Defence bases, such as Garden Island in Sydney Harbour, as issues such as urban development, encroachment and capacity constraints within existing infrastructure affect the ADF’s ability to safely and effectively execute its mission.”

It’s easy to get lost in translation on what the above actually means. Earlier in the paper, it says Garden Island will be upgraded to allow it to cater to larger military hardware. On the other hand, it’s possible to form the belief the Navy may require even more space in order for it to do its job – space which doesn’t exist within current urban confines in East Sydney.

In response to enquiries made by Cruise Advice, a spokesman from Carnival Australia said the company “maintained its view that long term access to the Garden Island facility on a shared basis during the peak of the summer cruise season was a sensible option”.

CLIA chairman Gavin Smith, also the Regional Vice-President Asia-Pacific for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, said the cruise industry can appreciate how much things can change over a ten-year period considering the growth levels it has experienced.

“Sydney as a cruise destination is often at capacity and new berthing options are required if the growth we have experienced is to continue in Sydney,” Smith said.

“We will continue to work with the Navy and the Federal and State Governments to seek solutions to the growing berthing requirements of the industry, including continued occasional use of the Garden Island berths when they are available. The industry has appreciated the Navy’s cooperation in providing berthing in the past and hopes that this will continue.”

MS Oosterdam sits in dry dock at Garden Island.
The NSW economy could also benefit from Garden Island’s dry dock facility, which it did when servicing Holland America Line’s MS Oosterdam in 2012.

According to results revealed this week of a study commissioned by cruising advocacy body Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia, stymied access to sufficient berth space is costing the state millions in passenger and cruise ship spend, with the state’s slice of the annual cruising pie shrinking from 73 per cent in 2013 to 67 per cent in 2014-15. Effectively, the cruise industry is now a victim of its own stunning success.

“Separate to the study, we now know that NSW authorities underestimated the potential growth of cruising and the need for port facility improvement to accommodate its strong growth as outlined in the new study,” Carnival Australia chief executive and CLIA Executive Committee member Ann Sherry said.

“According to their forecasts, it would be 2030 before Sydney could expect to see 445 cruise ship calls a year but we now know that this level will be achieved by next year based on current bookings, highlighting the urgent need to solve port constraints in Sydney Harbour,” she reiterated this week.

And so the rhetorical merry-go-round goes on.