Sun, Nov 6, 2022 6:00 AM

Cruising into better times


Tessa Jaine

It’s been more than two years since cruise ships made their way through the scenic Queen Charlotte Sound and docked at Picton, off- tourists to explore the region, but they are back this summer with almost 50 cruise ships expected to arrive. Judene Edgar finds out more.

Excitement is mounting, flowers are being picked, chocolate is being wrapped, and team training is taking place in preparation for the return of cruise ships. Due to Covid-19 there’s been a hiatus of 955 days between cruise ships, but now Marlborough is ready to welcome international visitors once more. “We’re just thrilled. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a lot of tourists wandering around. It brings so much fun and vibrancy to our community,” says Destination Marlborough general manager Jacqui Lloyd. “After a really hard two-and-a-half years, it says we’re open, summer is here, and it’s a sign of better things to come.”

As has become a tradition for over 35 years, first to meet and greet the cruise ship visitors will be the Picton Flower Ladies. Originally started by the Lions Club in 1988, the internationally-renowned flower ladies provide a very personal welcoming touch as people come to shore, with a cheery smile and handmade buttonholes. Despite feeling a little rusty after over two years in hiatus, the flower ladies have been re-grouping and working in teams to pick and arrange the flowers.

Picton Flower Ladies Joy Fletcher and Margaret Frisken wait for passengers to disembark.

“A lot of the Picton Flower Ladies have great gardens or friends who allow us to pick their flowers,” says flower lady Margaret Frisken, who has just spent the afternoon with a group of flower ladies at her house preparing for the first cruise ship to arrive. “We usually get a very good reception and response at the wharf. They just love the flowers and it’s great to see people walking around town wearing them.” For the visitors who haven’t heard of the Picton Flower Ladies, Margaret says that some can be a bit hesitant, thinking that they’re selling flowers, but are overwhelmed when they realise that they’re a welcome gift. “Some people ask us how much, or offer us donations.”

“People often want to have photos taken with us”, says fellow Picton Flower Lady Joy Fletcher, who’s also spent the afternoon arranging flowers at Margaret’s place. “We wear pink hi-vis vests so we often get called the Pink Ladies.” Joy says that they also act as unofficial guides, helping people find the best coffee spots, free WiFi, or where to book trips. While they admit it’s been busy getting ready for the first cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas which has a total capacity of just under 5,000, the ladies think that, despite being slightly down on numbers, they’re coping. “But we can always do with more ladies,” says Margaret.

Picton businesses were humming with the arrival of almost 5000 Ovation of the Seas passengers.

Joy and Margaret are also excited to see the return of the Picton Lions Cruise Ship Market, another staple of cruise ships that has been sadly missing for the past two and a half years. The Lions Club have been running the cruise ship markets for over 15 years as their major fundraiser. Market co-ordinator Roger Kett says that he’s “looking forward to another good year raising funds, so that we can give it out. It’s good to be able to support community groups and projects,” he says. In fact, they’ve just been able to contribute a massive $30,000 towards The Link Pathway Te Ara Tūhono, the 42-km walking and mountain-biking pathway between Picton and Havelock.

Shortly after they got the word that there would be cruise ships coming this year, Roger and his “band of happy men and ladies” set to action to get the market back up and running again. He’s delighted that they’ve got around 25 stallholders confirmed for the markets to coincide with the arrival of the larger (1000+ passenger) cruise ships. They’ve also got an extra treat for the visitors this year, with local songstress Leanne Meikle providing entertainment.

Port Marlborough Ltd are hoping to make the return of the cruise ship market special. “Waitohi Picton is renowned for its welcoming of guests. The Picton Flower Ladies will be back this season, doing a great job of providing hand-picked flower posies to each passenger and providing friendly welcomes as our visitors disembark the ships,” says CEO Rhys Welbourn. “We are also working with Te Atiawa to welcome the first vessel with a pōwhiri.”

The Marlborough Port team have a busy cruise season ahead.

In preparation, the port, workshop and marine teams have been undertaking refresher training and running through lines procedures, health and safety, and the processes around arrivals and departures of the cruise ships. “Accommodating cruise ships is a major operation for Port Marlborough and requires the input of many people across multiple teams within the port.”

This year they are expecting 48 cruise ships ranging from the Coral Adventurer (126 passengers) and Le Soleal (265), through to the Celebrity Eclipse (2,850), Majestic Princess (3,560) and Ovation of the Seas (4,905), plus thousands of crew. “We anticipate around 81,000 passengers this season. Tourism operators in Waitohi Picton and the wider Marlborough region were hit hard by the international border closure. The cruise industry supports jobs and brought $29 million to the Marlborough region in the last season prior to the 2-year closure of our borders due to Covid in 2020,” says Rhys.

Marlborough Harbourmaster Captain Jake Oliver agrees. “The return of cruise ships, especially after the impacts of Covid, will support both our tourism industry and regional economy.” The cruise ship season started 26 October with the arrival of the Ovation of the Seas at Shakespeare Bay, the largest ship to berth, which will be returning a further five times throughout the season. The Ovation’s final visit will be on 12 April 2023, which also marks the end of the cruise ship season. In addition to looking after the cruise ships, Jake will also be supporting boaties who may not have experienced such large ships operating in the Marlborough Sounds. “We look forward to seeing people out on the water enjoying their time,” he says. “Harbourmaster boats will be out on the water, interacting with boaties and patrolling the waters.”

Marlborough Wine Tours owner-operator Jess Daniell says, “it’s great that we have tourists back again.” Bookings are already looking strong this year, with Jess focusing on providing half-day pre-booked tours for cruise visitors. With continuing staffing issues across the tourism and hospitality sector, Jess said that it was important to find the balance between meeting the needs of tourists, and trying to be sustainable and resilient. Makana Confections director Brian Devlin was also pleased to see the cruise ships returning. “The business that we enjoyed on cruise ship days will be welcomed as it not only brings business to Makana but also signals the return of international visitors. We are pleased that New Zealand is again open to the world and we welcome the opportunity to look after our visitors and show off the best that Marlborough has to offer.” Brian is also looking forward to providing customers with a “bigger and better experience” following a major development of their Blenheim Boutique Factory.

The Picton Lions Cruise Ship Market is excited to be back for the arrival of the larger cruise ships.

“Our operators have great offerings. Visitors go out and do things from Wairau Valley to the gardens in Awatere, into the wine region or out around the Marlborough Sounds,” says Jacqui. Visitors enjoy anything from bike tours to shopping, kayaking, wine tasting, scenic walks, or visiting the market and enjoying a local café. Jacqui also describes these day visits as the perfect “taster opportunity”, especially for Australian visitors who frequently come back for three or four-days next time. “We’re looking forward to an excellent season and showing everyone a wonderful time.”

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