Where Have All the Ferries Gone?

Where have all the ferries gone?

Preana skipper and Tasmanian polymath Sam Yousofi writes:

For the past decade, I have been dreaming of starting a river cruise and ferry service on the Derwent River.  It all started at the end of my first day in command of the old ferry Emmalisa.  I fell in love with the idea and being an academic pedant, I embarked on analysing various business models from every conceivable angle.

For a whole week, during the summer of 2008, I sat in front of T42, ordered coffee and observed the many cruise operators while recording their movements and passenger numbers.   Seven days and sixty-nine cups of coffee later I had the necessary data.

There were fourteen vessels offering a variety of services:

Peppermint Bay, Excella, Cartela, Wonderer, Commodore, Emmalisa, Regent Star, Jeremiah Ryan (Incat Hull No. 1), Windeward Bound, Lady Nelson, The Wild Thing and the two water taxis.

Ferries like the MV Cartela were once common on the River Derwent

Between them there were 168 scheduled departures per week plus the unscheduled runs by the water taxis.  Around 80% of departures carried sufficient number of passengers to cover the operating costs and turn a profit.  The profit margins were at times modest and at other times very good.

Since each vessel operated in a specific market niche, their product offerings were not in direct competition and there were no price wars.  Regent Star offered a ferry service between Bellerive and Brooke Street Pier every morning and afternoon with a dozen regular customers who purchased a book of 10 tickets for the week.  This period may well represent the most prosperous time for river cruise operations in the recent history of Hobart.

The rowing ferry Admiral is Tasmania’s oldest boat

A decade later, as we approach 2018, only four vessels remain.  Two of them are occasionally operated by volunteers on a non-profit basis. There are only a dozen or so scheduled departures per week and many trips do not carry sufficient passenger numbers to cover the costs.

The question we need to ask is; why did we lose all that waterfront business even though, due to the magic of MONA, the number of tourists have tripled since 2008?

My observations and analysis lead to the following conclusion:

Most tourists coming to Hobart are weekend visitors from the mainland.  They arrive on Friday evening, take the airport bus to their hotels, check-in, have dinner and many have an early night to rest sufficiently before the anticipated excitements of the next day.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, they stroll past Sullivan’s Cove to Salamanca Market, that they have heard about so much, and spend two hours trying to figure out what exactly is so special about it. This is followed by a stroll back to the spanking new Brooke Street Pier and a wait to board the ferry to MONA.

The ferry trip to MONA doubles as a quasi-river-cruise itself.  The rest of the day is spent on immersing in art appreciation until they feel they have earned the bragging right for having done so. The ferry trip back to Sullivan’s Cove is another quasi-river-cruise.  Many will regard two quasi-anything as the full thing.  Arrival in Sullivan’s Cove will be either during the dark in winter or during sea breeze and choppy waters in summer, both making a river cruise an unattractive option.

Sunday morning is sleep-in time to recover from previous night’s (perhaps excessive) wining and dining followed by a hurried dash to the airport to fly out.

With the duopoly the Salamanca Market and MONA hold on the visitor’s available time, no other tourist attraction will get a chance to make an honest dollar from the influx of weekend tourists.

MONA has no doubt contributed significantly to Tasmania by attracting fame and fortune to Hobart and driving its tourism industry.  Let us hope that it continues to grow and scale even greater heights in the future.  However, just as a rising sun obscures the stars, it will be inevitable that MONA will continue to shift the focus of tourism activity away from other more traditional attractions such as river cruises, Port Arthur, The Air Walk, Richmond Village, Mount Wellington and yes, dare I say it, proposed Cable Car.

Those who plan new tourism ventures and attractions for Hobart will be well advised not to use the total number of visitors as a statistical basis for their calculations.  For planning purposes, tourism statistics should be adjusted for the Market/MONA effect on the activity pattern of week-end visitors.

Tourist attractions go in and out of fashion and a myopic focus on MONA will not serve the strategic interests of Tasmanian Tourism.  One solution is to leverage the MONA factor by providing incentives to weekend tourists to stay one more day.  This could be in the form of discounted accommodation for Thursday and Sunday nights or a rebate for Thursday and Monday flights.   With access to tourists for one extra day, ferries will soon return to the Derwent, paving the way for regular public transport on the river.

As for the cruise ship visitors, their patrons have even less available time than the weekenders.  I remember the last conversation I had with a retired American couple who had just stepped off a visiting cruise ship.  It went something like this:

Me: Hello, welcome to Hobart.  Could I interest you in a river cruise on one of the most beautiful boats in Australia; The Steam Yacht Preana build in 1896?

Husband: Don’t be silly.  We just got off a boat five minutes ago.  Why should we get into another boat?  Now, how do we get to this MONA thing?

Me (pointing): I am afraid you must board that boat there to get to MONA.

As they walked away I heard the wife saying: “Honey, the paint job on that boat makes it look like your old hunting shorts!”

Sam Yousofi

Captain, Steam Yacht Preana

1 thought on “Where Have All the Ferries Gone?”

  1. Sam,
    You are spot on with this analysis! The river and its’ culture is the strength of Hobart and those of us who love Tasmania would certainly take advantage of discounted “extensions” to our weekend. As an “honorary Taswegian”* I have taken an interest in following trends on one of Australia’s most beautiful destinations for decades and I always make sure I am on the water, in some vessel, during every visit. I would hope an extra discounted day or two, and careful promotion of this linked to the Derwent, would encourage increased ferry trade. *Vested interest declared – until the 1960s, I was the first of my family to have been born on the mainland, and my first ancestral family arrived in 1808. Best wishes for success.

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