The other side

21:10, Feb 24 2013
HERE COME THE TOURISTS: The Interislander ferry Kaitaki, bound for Picton

Clifford Bay, southeast of Blenheim, has been eyed as a possible alternative to Picton for a Cook Strait ferry terminal for nearly a century - but suddenly the talk is getting serious. Naomi Arnold assesses the implications for Nelson.

It's all over the news in Marlborough - Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee's proposal to move the Interislander road and rail ferry terminal from Picton to Clifford Bay.

It would mean no more chugging through the bays of Queen Charlotte Sound and Tory Channel, but instead a speedy trip between Wellington and the wide sweep of Clifford Bay, a exposed part of the shoulder of the South Island at the eastern entrance to Cook Strait, about 55 kilometres south of Picton.

The ferries will disgorge travellers who will drive past the Lake Grassmere salt works and come to a choice. Left or right? Kaikoura and the pleasures of the greater South Island - or Blenheim and, hopefully, Nelson and beyond? There's no doubt, the scheme's detractors argue, which one they'll choose.

Some see the proposal as an opportunity for Picton to rebrand itself as a true destination rather than a transit point; others cry sudden death. One of those is Blenheim Mayor Alistair Sowman, who fears that the top of the south will become "a regional cul-de-sac".

On this side of the Whangamoas, it's a view backed by Nelson city councillor Eric Davy, who has so far made most of the local rumblings of discontent.


Mr Davy has organised a summit of the Marlborough, Nelson and Tasman mayors on March 4, which he says will bring their concerns to the Government's attention. "The whole top of the South Island could be affected."

It's not a new proposal. Picton has been the South Island base for ferry operations since 1962, but the Clifford Bay idea has been around since the 1920s. The Marlborough District Council even issued a resource consent for a ferry terminal at Clifford Bay in the past.

The reasons behind it? Bigger, faster and cheaper.

Mr Brownlee says freight volumes are expected to double by 2040, and the $422 million proposal would take a much more direct route across the strait, accommodating larger ships. There would also be time for more sailings each day, and it would cut the total travelling time between Wellington and Christchurch by 80 minutes for ferry and road, and 110 minutes for ferry and rail.

Port Marlborough is physically constrained, with no more room to expand. There are limits on the size of ships that can use Picton harbour, and speed restrictions through the Marlborough Sounds limit the number of return sailings the ferries can make each day.

The Government's report is due in June, and it has kept a tight lid on the issue so far. None of its reports will be released until a decision has been made. Its first move was to have the three key stakeholders - the Marlborough District Council, KiwiRail and Strait Shipping - sign confidentiality agreements, so it could hold "confidential strategic and commercial discussions" with them.

The tourism impacts on Marlborough have been assessed (though not released) as part of the business case, but the Ministry of Transport did not respond to repeated Nelson Mail inquiries as to whether one was done for the Nelson region.

If the Interislander ferries move, Picton will lose 1.2 million visitors a year. The impact on the small town and Blenheim will be immense, at least initially.

Picton's motel and hotel operators say 80 per cent of their guests stay there because they are heading for the ferries or have just come off one. Mr Sowman has suggested that about 200 port jobs could be "wiped out", not taking into account those in retail, hospitality and accommodation.

But what about the other way, to the west? For Nelsonians, it would add half an hour to the drive to catch a ferry, but the overall effect on the region is harder to gauge.

Mr Davy believes the shift would turn Nelson, which is already off the main trunk line, into an isolated destination. He argues that even those driving to the West Coast will choose to go via Lewis Pass or the Wairau Valley rather than taking the route through Nelson and Murchison.

He also believes road freight could become more expensive because of the longer distance and extra hills between Clifford Bay and Nelson.

But it is difficult to know how many tourists come through here from the ferries.

Nelson Tasman Tourism chief executive Lynda Keene says that information isn't routinely collected. The only available estimates are more than a decade old. What was basically a guess in 2001 put the number at 168,000 one-way ferry passengers to and from Nelson, both international visitors and Kiwis.

Other figures, from an Interislander survey the same year, said 22 per cent of its arriving passengers were heading to Nelson and the West Coast, 18 per cent on foot and the rest in vehicles. A third were visiting friends and relatives, and 44 per cent were on long touring holidays.

According to the Nelson Tasman Regional Economic Development Strategy, the value of tourism to the region is $128m, with visitors spending $349.5m. It is our fifth-biggest earner behind horticulture, forestry, seafood and farming, and a major employer, and is expected to grow 20 to 50 per cent in the next decade.

Ms Keene would prefer the ferries to remain in Picton - an "amazing entree" to the South Island - and she imagines that even with passengers and freight going to Clifford Bay, there will still be cruise ship business through the Sounds. At a rough guess, she thinks there would perhaps be a 10 per cent loss.

She says most ferry users fall into two camps: Busy truckies and camera-toting tourists.

"I can see the rationale from a freight perspective, but from a visitor perspective, I would like to see them going to Picton."

But she says that Nelson, particularly Abel Tasman National Park, is a "high-quality, premium" destination, attracting what the tourism industry calls FITs, or free independent travellers. Those who visit our region stay in the country for between 19 and 60 days, a much longer and more relaxed journey than the 19-night average of the rest of New Zealand.

"For them, an extra 45 minutes [drive] is not going to have an impact. We are a desired destination," Ms Keene says.

Nelson Mayor Aldo Miccio doesn't believe Nelson promotes itself to its full potential in Picton.

"If the Clifford Bay development was proven to be viable and it was to proceed, then I'm sure it will present opportunities for us to ensure we maximise our potential. If it doesn't proceed, it will ensure that we are not complacent and look to further maximise returns from Picton better than we currently are."

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne says the loss of tourists is more of a concern than the freight effects.

"We already promote ourselves with a limited budget, and I see real challenges growing the destination marketing spend. The potential for a reduction of travellers is a concern, whatever the percentage."

Tourism operators who spoke to the Mail have not started worrying seriously about the proposal.

Happy Valley Adventures co-owner Jill Anderson says it will take some "very clever marketing" to make sure travellers come this way, rather than heading straight for the charms of Kaikoura.

"I think it will have an impact. It's hard to know what's going to happen, but we've got time to work something out."

Her adventure tourism business sees "quite a number" of casual tourists in the late afternoon, after they've disembarked from the ferry. She also says a sizeable proportion drive off the ferry, arrive at Happy Valley or Cable Bay, and then turn back for Kaikoura.

It's a similar story for Cable Bay Holiday Park owners Ian and Barbara Stuart. Mrs Stuart estimates that about a third of their business is international tourists, depending on campervans either heading to the Picton ferries or streaming off them on their way to Nelson and beyond.

"We get quite a few people who go to the Abel Tasman, and this is the stop on the way. People see our sign and are in for the night.

"If people are determined to come to the Abel Tasman, it's further for them to come, and they may rather go whale-watching [in Kaikoura]."

Mrs Stuart thinks the biggest impact of a move to Clifford Bay would be on smaller business operators, whose guest numbers are lower and more susceptible to big fluctuations.

"It would have an impact on us, and it would not necessarily be disastrous, but people would have some adjustments to make. Who knows?"

Tahuna Beach Holiday Park's Valda Holland points out that plenty of people already drive straight from Picton up the Wairau Valley to the West Coast in "a big loop".

"I think Nelson misses out already."

At the other end of Tasman Bay, Darryl Wilson suspects that a change would not affect his business, Wilson's Abel Tasman - but that's because he thinks the proposal won't fly.

"The economics of it are questionable; I haven't heard a good case yet that's convinced me," he says.

However, Nelson MP Nick Smith says Nelson has nothing to fear from the Clifford Bay proposal. He says it will actually reduce the overall travel time to Wellington, which will reduce freight costs, contrary to Mr Davy's view.

Dr Smith is not yet convinced whether it's a good or a bad idea, and says people need to "take a deep breath" and wait until the Government's economic analysis is out in June. "People are shooting off opinions without the facts.

"I think it's a ridiculous argument to suggest that people coming to Nelson from Picton right now do it by mistake. They make a deliberate choice to come to Nelson because of what we offer, and if the port facility is a little further south, I don't think it will change that choice."

The Picton-based port company, Port Marlborough, is fully owned by the Marlborough council, to which it pays an annual dividend. Dr Smith says he is concerned that the council's business interests in the port are colouring its view on what is in the best interests of the top of the south.

"We on this side of the hill don't need to get tied up in those arguments, and need to take a broader perspective."

The cost of the project means "it's a big ask", he says.

"It will need to have a large economic benefit for anyone to invest that."

Another intriguing idea has emerged from the debate: Mr Davy has resurrected the spectre of a ferry between Nelson and Wellington, or Nelson and New Plymouth.

He says a shipping link with New Plymouth would make for a shorter trip than that between Wellington and Nelson, and would prevent Auckland freight from having to be trucked to Wellington, shipped to Picton, and then trucked again to Nelson.

The Nelson Region Economic Development Agency asked consultant and former Nelson Harbour Board general manager Stuart Hughes to prepare a preliminary report for the Nelson City Council, looking at the feasibility of a ferry service. The report concluded that a Nelson-Wellington passenger and freight or freight-only service would not be commercially viable.

Mr Miccio, for one, is curious about investigating that idea. He says the Clifford Bay proposal could make the cost benefits of a shipping link with New Plymouth viable, with better service for this region.

"It seems more than likely that because of the way central government is so strongly backing this proposal to shift to Clifford Bay, it could be a foregone conclusion - much like the school mergers in Christchurch," Mr Miccio says.

"Our opportunity could well be in developing better, more cost-effective links via New Plymouth, and developing improved destination marketing propositions to target the passenger and tourist hub that Clifford Bay will become."

But Dr Smith pours cold water on the idea of a ferry service between Nelson and the North Island, saying it wouldn't make economic sense if Clifford Bay goes ahead.

"I don't see how that stacks up."

Ms Keene warns that it's too early to judge. Besides, she adds, if Clifford Bay does go ahead, tourism organisations will have plenty of time to work with the ferry companies and adjust their marketing to suit.

Perhaps, she says, a few big, new billboards at the intersection of the Clifford Bay road and State Highway 1 would entice tourists into turning right.