Auckland residents fed up with frequent ferry cancellations to allow cruise ships to dock

Residents in Auckland feel tourists on cruise ships are being prioritised over them.
Residents in Auckland feel tourists on cruise ships are being prioritised over them. Photo credit: Getty Images

Story by Maia Ingoe of RNZ

Auckland ferry commuters are frustrated at a recent spate of delays and cancellations and worry the problem will worsen as cruise season peaks.

Close to 100 ferry sailings were cancelled or delayed in the city in December, due to cruise ships arriving or departing Princess Wharf.

It has been one of the busiest cruise ship seasons in recent years, and arrivals are yet to peak.

And as more people return to work, commuters are worried the problem will continue to get worse.

Ports of Auckland said ferries were restricted from moving through the downtown ferry basin while cruise ships were arriving or departing from Princess Wharf.

There are exclusion windows for cruise ships, where they cannot move through the harbour, at weekday peak times between 6.30am and 9.05am, and 4.30pm and 6.05pm.

But, a total of 98 sailings all around Auckland were still cancelled or delayed during December.

The most affected run was to and from Devonport, with 81 sailings cancelled.

Waiheke ferries are not included in the numbers from Auckland Transport, but were also delayed.

Sam Mojiel catches the 6am ferry from Devonport to his job at Auckland Hospital.

That ferry sailing falls outside the morning period where cruise ships are banned from sailing through the harbour, and is often cancelled.

"I think when an organisation is offering a public service, and you then can't rely on it and can't depend on it, such as me and a lot of other people are finding, it's a big problem," he said.

"It's annoying, it's really frustrating."

Since December, RNZ has added up more than 20 further sailings cancelled or delayed.

That's a worry for ferry commuters, who are tired of cruise disruption.

Commuters were being treated shoddily by Auckland Transport, Mojiel said, and the problem had worsened over the past three years.

"Whatever cruise ships require, seems to be what happens [...] tourists are being given preferential treatment over commuters."

Auckland Transport public transport manager Rachel Cara disagreed that cruise ships were being put first.

"I don't think that's the case, it's more that there's a balancing act of multiple parties wanting to use the same area within downtown."

The ferry cancellations were a safety issue, as engine thrusters used by cruise ships caused underwater currents that were hazardous to ferries, Cara said.

Need for 'purpose-built wharf' for cruise ships

North Shore ward councillor Chris Darby said he constantly heard from residents about the cancelled ferries.

"When you have several hundred passengers lining up for the Waiheke ferry, the Devonport ferry, the Birkenhead ferry, and all the other ferry services, and they're listening to the [speaker] saying nothing's moving out of here for another hour, in temperatures of 27 degrees, the blood boils."

Darby has been working on extending the no-movement window for cruise ships since 2022.

He said the current proposal, to come into force by the start of the next cruise ship season in August, would extend the afternoon exclusion window by one hour - this does not help morning commuters like Mojiel.

Darby said this was not enough, and that he would like the morning window extended, too.

He raised doubts about the economic benefit of cruise ships to New Zealand.

"We overestimate the value of cruise, and we underestimate the economic impact of commuter ferry services and the number of people that are reliant on that," Darby said.

"I'm not convinced of the so-called 'great value' of cruise tourism.

"We should be defining cruise tourism in Aotearoa, not just accepting what turns up, tie it up, take the fee."

New Zealand Cruise Association executive director Jacqui Lloyd said Auckland was an essential stop for cruise ships, as it was where many passengers joined the cruise.

She said 120 cruise ships were expected to visit Auckland between October and April, bringing economic benefit to the city.

"Not only does that help in regards to visitor spend in retail, hospitality, and tourism operators, but also it's a significant benefit to accommodation providers, the airport, and other services around the Auckland region."

Lloyd could not comment on the cancelled ferries, but suggested a purpose-built wharf for cruise ships with walk-on and off capacity would support the future growth of cruises in Auckland.

"Certainly that's one thing we should strongly advocate going forward," she said.

Cara, from AT, said it would be supportive of infrastructure development that relocated cruise ships from the ferry basin into purpose-built facilities - but could not confirm whether any plans were in the works.

In a statement, Ports of Auckland said: "POAL has identified the need for more cruise ship infrastructure and has factored this into its long-term planning."

Darby was adamant that cruises could not continue as it was.

"The long-term future for cruise is not in the ferry basin. It can't be in Princess East, and it can't really be even on Queens East," he said.