Stopping the Boats stymies Sydney’s visitor arrivals

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Stopping the boats might be the central policy preoccupation of federal Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Prime Minster Tony Abbott, but in New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell and his Roads and Ports Minister, Duncan Gay, literally just can’t get enough authorised maritime arrivals.

A rapid influx of waterborne visitors to Sydney has prompted the state government to jettison some of Sydney’s trendiest restaurateurs  from prime waterfront real estate at the iconic Overseas Passenger Terminal as the government reclaims the wharf to cater for the growing trade in super-sized ocean liners  too big to make it under the Harbour Bridge.

Now NSW Roads and Ports Minister Duncan Gay has revealed much anticipated plans to upgrade Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal (OPT) and extend the premium wharf towards Campbell’s Cove as the government sinks another $49-million into bolstering Sydney’s cruise ship infrastructure.

The rebuild and extension of the wharf is set to start in the low-end of the cruise season in May 2014 with works slated to be finished by September the same year.

But the key issue for the both government and the tourism industry is that demand for Sydney’s plushest parking spot for big boats is overflowing, largely because visitors willing to pay their way can literally step off into the heart of the CBD while enjoying unrivalled views of the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge and the surrounding harbour.

While industry advocates the Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF) have welcomed the expansion  of the Overseas Passenger Terminal, they say ocean liner access to the Royal Australian Navy’s main base at Garden Island needs to be expanded because of its proximity to the city.

If the bid by the cruising industry to tie up in Navy docks is ultimately successful, it could create a rather intriguing paradox.

On one hand the Canberra would be deploying Navy vessels to repel unauthorised boat arrival while at the same time effectively subletting Navy facilities to cater for bigger spending boat people.

The TTF is backing the bid to open up Garden Island as a pleasure dock.

The deputy chief executive of TTF, Trent Zimmerman, said that despite the upgrade to the Overseas Passenger Terminal, the “missing link” was now “increased access to Garden Island so the potential of the sector isn’t stymied.”

“Nearly one million cruise passengers are expected to visit Sydney each year by 2020 and the city needs more berthing facilities to take advantage of this growth,” Mr Zimmerman said.

“In the next three years a third of all cruise ships visiting Sydney will be unable to fit under the Harbour Bridge to access the White Bay Cruise Terminal.”

Mr Zimmerman said that shared access with the Navy at Garden Island “in the peak of the summer cruise season” was the “the obvious long term solution” so that Sydney and Australia could fully benefit from the growing number of cruise ships wanting to travel to Sydney.

The tourism industry’s plea comes as the federal government considers potential ways to unlock billions of dollars by divesting prime water front land now owned by the government as a way to rein in the Budget deficit, a potential bonanza for developers.

However trying to get the Navy to surrender space at its historic Garden Island facility has had a tendency to burn fingers on both sides of politics.

The Navy’s presence at Garden Island became a political football during the 2013 federal election campaign after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed moving “Fleet Base East” out of Sydney and to Queensland so that forces were closer to northern hotspots.

That idea was rebuked by Premier Barry O’Farrell who said NSW stood to lose more than 4000 jobs because Mr Rudd was playing politics with defence.

Mr Rudd responded that Mr O’Farrell was being “grumpy.”

He claimed the NSW Premier had that said he wanted more cruise ships, that Garden Island was not state property and that the Navy’s role was to defend Australia and not Garden Island.

Meanwhile, the TTF is campaigning for the polar opposite of stopping the boats.

“Cruising is fastest growing sector of Australian tourism. Passenger numbers grew a record 34 per cent in 2011 and 11 per cent in 2012,” Mr Zimmerman said.

“While the federal government has extended the interim arrangement, that allows three ships to berth at Garden Island each cruise season, a long term solution is urgently required so Sydney can take down the ‘no vacancy’ sign and welcome increased visits by cruise ships that bring billions of dollars to the Australian economy each year.”

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