It's still an event when a megaliner like the Voyager of the Seas sails into Wellington Harbour. Olivia Wannan reports on what the passengers want, where they go and how they spend their cash.
Where's the cable car, and where can you buy Hobbit ears and feet? Such questions are all in a day's work for Karen Smith.
The Victoria University tourism management senior lecturer is one of 108 "city ambassadors" who meet the increasing number of cruise ship passengers when the big liners are in town.
The volunteers are positioned at key sights around the city, helping to point tourists in the right direction.
The aim of the programme, run by Positively Wellington Tourism, is to build the city's reputation as a destination - and it looks like it's working.
"There's a real appreciation for the ambassador programme," Dr Smith says. "I can think of people who have said, 'We're from Brisbane and we wish we had something like this there.' It's a really positive aspect of their visit."
She and her fellow volunteers have greeted eight cruise ships since last month, but the peak is still to come, with another 83 to dock before April - a record- breaking season.
Hop On Hop Off city tour operator John McKinney is one of a number of tourism operators who rely on cruise ships for revenue over summer.
However, as the numbers have boomed, the profile of the average traveller has changed, he says.
Where once it was an American on a bucket-list tour, nowadays it is a younger, typically Australian visitor who is more budget-conscious.
"I saw a big drop-off in Americans after 9/11, but they're slowly coming back," he says.
Today's travellers are looking to spend a day soaking up the vibe of the city at their own pace, rather than booking a jam-packed itinerary.
"They want to get the essence of Wellington."
Many tour operators have had to adjust their products to fit the changing profile. Positively Wellington Tourism chief executive David Perks wants visitors - many of whom are "serial cruisers" - to leave with the right impression of the city.
"What we concentrate our efforts on is making sure the experience the cruise ship passengers have in Wellington is the best possible . . . so when they go away they go away with the very best stories.
"Then, when they're on a cruise in the Caribbean, because they're in that closed social environment, they do actually say, 'You should go to Wellington, New Zealand, it's fantastic'."
The 172,000 passengers expected to disembark from luxury liners in Wellington this season - almost one for every city resident - are expected to inject millions into the region's economy.
Their arrival is particularly well-timed for many businesses whose usual customers are likely to be headed to the nearest beach over the summer holidays.
Not all of the visitors are from overseas, Mr Perks points out, with growing numbers of Kiwis choosing to spend their holidays on a week-long cruise around their own country.
For passengers from both home and abroad, the "coolest little capital" offers a different experience to other ports of call.
"Our city is very compact, it's walkable," he says.
"Passengers like coming and doing their own thing, and that's great for Wellington because it means the spread of spend is right across our commercial businesses."
Though you cannot beat Wellington on a good day, the city also manages to hold its own when the weather packs up.
"We do have some big indoor attractions, like Te Papa or the city museum, and of course, going shopping.
"So we actually do provide really well for wet weather conditions compared to other places."
Rain or shine, Te Papa sits high on the to-do list of most cruise visitors.
ALEXIS HAWKE, general manager of the Te Papa museum shop, says the cruise ship influx, particularly from a big liner like the Voyager of the Seas, requires a bit of planning.
"The boat that was in on Monday had over 3000 guests on it - that was a huge day."
The biggest days, though, are still to come, including Christmas Eve when the Diamond Princess and Costa Romantica will be berthed for the day.
"One's got 2500 and one's got 1300 [passengers]," Ms Hawke says. "There's an extra 4000 people in town - that makes everything feel pretty festive."
As passengers have often already visited and shopped in other New Zealand ports, they are looking for something a little different when they come to Te Papa. "They've been to Napier or Auckland - they're not wanting to see all the other things they've seen in all the other stores."
They can spend anything from a few dollars to a few hundred at Te Papa, she says.
"It's a real mixture, from the ones who come in and want half a dozen postcards and stamps to the ones who are looking for glasswork."
She has seen people come on a cruise, have a great time in the capital and return.
"You even see people year after year after year."
Kirkcaldie & Stains managing director John Milford says the growing number of cruise travellers from across the ditch presents more of an opportunity to attract return visitors.
"If we can get more Australians just to pop across for long weekends, it will be great for the city."
The department store has welcomed the growth in cruise ship visits over the years.
"It's been building . . . so we would definitely feel the pinch if we didn't have it."
The first few months of the liner season aligns well with Kirks' busier holiday period, but the visitors are particularly welcome in January.
Apart from small gifts to take home and cosmetics, the most popular purchases are food - wine, chocolate and cheese, he says.
Cruise company Carnival Australia's ships are common visitors to Wellington. The city is due to welcome the Dawn Princess today and sister ships the Sun Princess tomorrow and the Sea Princess on Monday.
Vice-president of corporate affairs Peter Taylor says Wellington, and New Zealand ports in general, offer a great range of experiences for passengers, from scenic views to fine dining.
"Wellington has always been a popular destination for our passengers, especially with the great mix of cafes, restaurants and shopping all within walking distance of the cruise terminal," Mr Taylor says.
The city might well get the chance to entertain more passengers, a CentrePort spokesperson says.
Bookings for cruise ships over the 2013-14 period are coming in already and CentrePort expects the season to be a similar size to this year, if not bigger.
- © Fairfax NZ News