Robin CopelandEditor's Column

Lack of berths control cruise ship visits to Sydney

The cruise industry says by 2015 a third of all liners visiting Sydney will be too high to get under the Harbour Bridge. Unless wharves are found for them east of the Harbour Bridge, they say Sydney stands to miss out on thousands of tourists as vessel go to other ports.
Cruise operators have been eyeing the Garden Island naval base as the only suitable deep-water berth alternative.
Some cruisers, including the biggest cruise liner to visit Australia, Queen Mary 2, have docked at Garden Island in the past with the navy’s approval. However, under current arrangements, only a limited number of cruisers can dock at Garden Island but they need to give the navy 18 months to two years advance notice.
Alternative suggestions have been to erect piles in deep water where cruise ships could moor close to the city at Athol Bay and adjacent to the Overseas Passenger Terminal …  and sending them to the cargo wharves in Botany Bay.
Modern liners are now designed to have large-capacity lifeboats that double as ferries when they cannot tie up alongside but must moor in mid-harbour. It’s not as romantic but it works.
Understandably, the cruise industry would prefer a dockside berth for every ship that arrives. It is more convenient, not to mention more stylish and saleable. Nonetheless, the industry keeps building ever larger boats.
It’s not the fault of the Royal Australian Navy that some cruise ships are too big to fit under the Harbour Bridge. It is the fault of the cruise lines that such gigantic vessels are in use. Complaints about ports not being able to accommodate extremely large ships are a criticism of the ships rather than the ports.
Garden Island earns Sydney much more money from the RAN per year than would a few cruise vessels over a few months and provides direct and indirect employment for tens of thousands of people while maintaining the only surviving maritime and industrial skills in the port.
The Woolloomooloo finger wharf housed a passenger terminal at one time. The platforms for access to those ships still exist on the restored wharf. It would have made a perfect cruise ship berth but it was sold off and redeveloped in the 1980s. Any person of vision would have seen that harbour infrastructure would come back into vogue.
Where was the tourism industry when successive state governments in NSW were attempting to (and ultimately succeeded) in selling off the finger wharf for a one-off boost to Treasury coffers? Bit late now for regrets.
Sydney’s ultimate failure to preserve its harbour as a working port dates back to 2003 when the state Labor government dropped a bombshell by reversing practically everything they previously championed about Sydney remaining a working port.
The navy had the foresight to secure the old commercial berths along Cowper Wharf Road to develop Fleet Base East in the early ’80s.
Pity the cruise and tourism industries that their leaders weren’t possessed of similar foresight 30-odd years ago.

Robin Copeland.