US cruise companies eye off Australian islands

Daydream Island is private but less suitable for cruise lines, says Wayne Bunz.

As the billion-dollar local cruise sector continues its aggressive push into Australian and New Zealand waters, its American masters are looking to buy private ­islands off Queensland’s coast to offer passengers exclusive destinations and further control passenger spending. 

US cruise lines have quietly ­inspected Queensland’s Daydream Island, in the Whitsundays, following the lead of Norwegian Cruise Lines, which began the trend in the 1970s, buying Great Stirrup Cay, in the Bahamas, ­exclusively for its passengers.

Cruising has enjoyed unprecedented growth in Australia, now with more than one million passengers annually. The sector is growing at more than 14% year-on-year, second only to growth in China and well ahead of the US and Britain.

The peak cruise tourism body, Cruise Lines International Association, foreshadows that buying private islands will be the big trend this year. But local companies concentrate on buying or leasing Queensland islands because destinations such as New Zealand and Tasmania are deemed too cold.

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“Cruise lines want an island that is exclusively for their cruise passengers,’’ says Brisbane-based agent Wayne Bunz, national ­director of CBRE Hotel Brokerage. “Every time a cruise ship calls into Cairns, once the passengers leave the ship the cruise line has no control over the expenditure of that tourist, so it makes sound economic sense to own the facilities they are dropping them to.”

Other cruise lines have followed in the wake of the Norwegians, buying in the Bahamas, French Polynesia and the northern coast of Haiti.

Paul Gauguin Cruises has ­access to two private beaches in French Polynesia, while Switzerland’s MSC Cruises recently launched Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, and now controls a 2.5km beach oasis, exclusively for its guests.

CLIA’s managing director for Australasia, Joel Katz, says buying private islands for passengers is part of a growth trend, with passengers booking itineraries which take in private islands. “While modern cruise lines are able to offer extensive on-board amenities, passengers are increasingly looking for a beach experience, and to satisfy this many cruise lines have purchased or leased private islands or beaches,” says Katz. “As more cruise lines introduce private island destinations, travellers are responding and booking these itineraries.”

Cruise lines want an island that is exclusively for their cruise passengers

P & O Cruises president Sture Myrmell says: “We are always looking at innovative ideas that can make cruise holidays special and the concept of exclusive ­access to an island paradise has been successful in other parts of the world.

“While it is not under active consideration at the moment, if an opportunity presented itself, it is something we would seriously consider.”

Norwegian Cruise Lines’ senior vice-president Steve Odell says: “The Caribbean is currently home to the majority of private ­islands servicing cruise lines.

“For example, Norwegian Cruise Lines own two — Harvest Caye and Great Stirrup Cay — both fringed by crystal-clear ocean waters and delivering an exceptional array of water-based leisure activities which make them an itinerary highlight for guests.

“With more and more cruise lines visiting and/or home-porting in Australasia, a region boasting beautiful coastlines peppered by hundreds of island retreats, it would be incredibly exciting to see the creation of similar island experiences for cruisers closer to home.”

Once the passengers leave the ship the cruise line has no control over the expenditure of that tourist, so it makes sound economic sense to own the facilities they are dropping them to

But Royal Caribbean Cruises Australian managing director Adam Armstrong has no plans for his company to buy an island.

“The majority of our itineraries are international — to New Zealand and the South Pacific, so strategically it wouldn’t make sense for us.”

Property agents report US cruise lines have been inspecting Queensland’s islands for a deep water port to entertain passengers in private, capturing their spending on beachside cabanas, alcohol and pool toys.

Bunz says he has been ­approached by cruise companies seeking to purchase islands.

“It’s for day trips … they are looking for all those activities like snorkelling, food and beverage which they currently give to concessionaires,” he said.

“What they want is an island offering exclusivity to their passengers. They want their guests on the boat transferred exclusively for them.’’

He says Queensland islands are available but many, such as Daydream, are unfeasible because they include accommodation.

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