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Guests disgruntled after booking Stewart Island cruise but getting Timaru instead

Thomas Bywater,
Publish Date
Sat, 16 Sep 2023, 8:40AM
P&O's Pacific Explorer, departs on the 20 November... now not calling into Stewart Island but Timaru. Photo / Brett Phibbs
P&O's Pacific Explorer, departs on the 20 November... now not calling into Stewart Island but Timaru. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Guests disgruntled after booking Stewart Island cruise but getting Timaru instead

Thomas Bywater,
Publish Date
Sat, 16 Sep 2023, 8:40AM

Some 2000 cruise passengers are feeling short-changed after a last-minute itinerary alteration swapped Stewart Island for Timaru. 

Equally, Stewart Island locals claim to have learned about the decision second-hand. 

Disgruntled guests who had just paid the final instalment were disappointed with the substitution, saying the mid-Canterbury port town was “really not the same” as the Southland offshore nature reserve. 

On Wednesday passengers were informed of the itinerary change to the Pacific Explorer’s nine-night sailing, departing Auckland on November 20 this year. 

“The local Stewart Island community have encouraged us to reconsider visiting at this time. We respect their views and have jointly made the decision to remove the planned visit to Stewart Island from the itinerary,” read the customer update from P&O. 

“Instead, your Pacific Explorer cruise will visit picturesque Timaru.” 

A spokeswoman for the cruise line confirmed Pacific Explorer would no longer visit Stewart Island as part of the trip. 

The cruise line said it was not at liberty to disclose which discussions or which community members had informed this decision, only that the decision had been “jointly made”. 

“P&O Cruises Australia strive to deliver itineraries as published however, due to a range of reasons, this isn’t always possible,” they said. 

“We feel really let down,” said Steve, who had booked the trip with his wife Antonia and another Auckland couple, specifically for the call into Stewart Island and Ulva Island. 

“One week ago we had paid our final instalment. Last night we received an email claiming that the Stewart Island community had asked the ship not to pull into the port.” 

The passengers said they could understand some changes to the itinerary but Stewart Island had been advertised as one of the key drawcards of the cruise since the itinerary first went on sale 16 months ago. 

“It’s really taken the icing off the cake,” they said. 

Sea views from Oban, Stewart Island's main settlement. Sea views from Oban, Stewart Island's main settlement. 

Stewart Island residents react to missed visit 

Stewart Island councillor Jon Spraggon said Southland District Council had not been part of the conversations with P&O and he had only been made aware of the decision after being contacted by disgruntled cruise travellers. 

“The size of the vessel is pretty close to the maximum size we are comfortable with,” he said, “but there was no discussion with the local council”. 

Ulva Wharf - which was used for cruise infrastructure - was “nearing the end of its lifespan and “in need of updating” but Spraggon said other cruise lines had not had any issues. 

There was a system of small tenders and water taxis that were able to bring cruise visitors onto the island without problem. 

“We would love to see tourists,” said Spraggon, who said no request was made to P&O to reconsider the visit. 

“They are an important part of our economy that relies on tourism.” 

Chairman of the islands’ Tourism Promotion Group Aaron Joy said that the decision “did not come from the Stewart Island community” and that the group had not been part of any consultations. 

Some tourism industry workers could see why the Pacific Explorer might not be an ideal fit for Stewart Island. 

The 266-metre ship, which has a maximum capacity of 1998 passengers and another 924 crew, is the largest ship welcomed by Oban, which is more used to 500- to 600-passenger ships. 

Debbie Summers of IDNZ, who is employed by P&O and the cruise lines’ parent company Carnival Australia to provide shore excursions and logistics for passengers across New Zealand, says it was a positive decision by the liner. 

“It’s about social licence and destination management,” she said. 

Her company, which arranges shore excursions for many other cruise brands belonging to Carnival Australia, said guest numbers for visits to the nature reserve of Ulva Island were capped at 100 visitors at a time. 

“Over 2000 passengers this isn’t sustainable. Especially, when you think there are only around 400 people who live in Oban. 

“Getting the right ship for the right location is important. Timaru is a much better fit for this class of ship.” 

However, Summers was not sure who was consulted on the island regarding the joint decision to stop Pacific Explorer’s call. 

In what a spokesperson for the company described as a “joint decision by the community and Carnival Cruises”, they would continue to serve Oban with other cruise brands and that “smaller ships such as Seabourn Odyssey will continue to call at Stewart Island as planned”. 

Unfortunately, they were “not at liberty to describe or comment” on the decision process or which members of the “Stewart Island community” were part of discussions, the spokesman said. 

“We have, and continue to, communicate with a range of stakeholders.” 

Bird-watching in the forests of Ulva Island during an Ulva's Guided Walks experience. Bird-watching in the forests of Ulva Island during an Ulva's Guided Walks experience. 

Consumer rights for disgruntled passengers 

P&O’s website for the Kiwi Explorer itinerary still proudly lists Stewart Island as a key draw for the itinerary. As of Friday, Septmeber 15, the cruise was still advertising the trip to Stewart Island as a P&O exclusive claiming to be the “only cruise line that visits this destination”. 

With double-occupancy berths selling from $1483.90 to $3553.90, it was no small investment. 

Passenger Steve said he would be seeking compensation from the cruise line, as the trip now did not resemble the original sailing. 

“We can understand some items may not be drawn up until closer to the time, but they were advertising the destination for a year and a half.” 

Abby Damen, communications and campaigns adviser at Consumer NZ, says passengers are within their rights to ask for compensation for an amended itinerary. 

“If you sign up and pay for a cruise to Stewart Island but you get a trip to Timaru, there’s a chance that you’ve been misled, and that the company may be at risk of breaching both acts [that apply],” she said. 

“Consumer Guarantees Act [CGA] says that goods and services must match the description given in advertisements or brochures or in this case - an itinerary.” 

Cruise small print can elaborate on the main selling message but the Fair Trading Act (means they cannot contradict the Consumer Guarantees. 

A spokesperson for Carnival Australia and P&O said cruise alterations may sometimes be necessary and unavoidable. 

All guests were informed of the change. 

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