OPINION: The impacts on the Nelson region of shifting the interisland ferry terminal from Picton are as unclear as the Cook Strait in a southerly.
The Government is expected to decide in June on whether to press ahead with a new terminal at Clifford Bay, 55 kilometres south.
An impact assessment has been completed for Picton, but will not be released until that decision is made.
But a shift would see the town would lose 1.2 million visitors a year. Marlborough mayor Alistair Sowman has suggested 200 jobs could go in the port alone, and accommodation operators say they will lose 80 per cent of their business.
Figuring out what could happen on this side of the Whangamoas is more difficult, though Mr Sowman says the ripple effect will make the top of the south a "regional cul-de-sac".
The ferries provide one of the main tourist sources for the South Island and naturally a percentage head west. Whether their decision-making will be affected by a half-hour being added to the drive from Clifford Bay is a moot point.
Nelson City councillor Eric Davy argues that they are more likely to head for Kaikoura and Christchurch, but Nelson MP Nick Smith disputes this. He says tourists make deliberate decisions to come to Nelson because of the region's natural pulling power.
Freight costs are another area of disagreement over whether the extra road distance to get to the terminal will be countered by the shorter sea voyage.
Nelson tourist operators think shifting the terminal may lead some to rethink their itinerary, but the independent travellers on less-hurried schedules will keep arriving.
In keeping with the secrecy around the process, the Ministry of Transport will not even say whether there has been an assessment of the Nelson effects should the terminal move.
However, the Government has indicated that a regional assessment would be completed if the Clifford Bay project proceeds to a resource hearing.
Before then it would seem good sense for the Government to provide an update on decade-old statistics that look at how many passengers pass through the Nelson region from the ferries. That would also give the region's promoters a better picture on how to target them.
In the end, the decision whether to proceed with the project will be made on the commercial viability of the new port.
It has a hefty $422 million price tag, but it does cut significant time, and therefore money, off the road and rail journeys between Wellington and Christchurch.
It will allow larger ships and more frequent sailings than in the confines of the Marlborough Sounds.
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee appears to be behind the shift, and would now have seen the economic case for it.
If the terminal does get through the economic and regulatory hurdles, there will be a substantial lead-in time before it's built from scratch. That will at least give Nelson tourism interests time for strategies to ensure the region remains on the tourist map.
- The Nelson Mail