In a huge boost for Canterbury tourism Black Cat Cruises has started a $1 million extension of its visitor and retail centre on Akaroa wharf.
The investment, recognising increased tourist numbers, has been welcomed by Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism as a strengthening the “visitor proposition” for the region.
The revitalisation project includes the removal of old cold stores, part of the Black Cat Cruises centre, to allow a larger building with more retail, customer and staff facilities.
Whilst the project takes place over the winter their Akaroa Harbour Nature Cruises are still operating daily.
The eco-tourism operator’s new building design includes environmentally-friendly and power saving features along with better wheelchair access. The underlying wharf is also owned by Black Cat.
A wood pallet burner will heat water for the showers that visitors use after swimming with the dolphins in Akaroa Harbour. New toilets and change facilities are also part of the project with a September completion deadline.
Chief executive Paul Milligan says the extension of the visitor centre is the biggest investment for Black Cat Cruises since the purchase of their flagship vessel, known as Black Cat, in 1999.
Black Cat Cruises now carries in the order of 100,000 passengers annually. The company’s visitor numbers during the 2015-16 summer season grew by a double digit percentage compared with the prior summer.
“Akaroa does really well for a small town to handle the number of people that are coming through,” Milligan says. “Without the addition of extra cruise ships into Akaroa Harbour following the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes we probably would not have considered investing so much.
“That being said some of our facilities needed upgrading. For example our shower and change rooms will include underfloor heating and we like to treat our all customers with a world-class product.”
Black Cat Cruises sales and marketing manager Natasha Lombart says the company is seeing renewed interest in Akaroa from international markets, and forward tourist bookings are now stretching out as far as August 2017.
The company has linked with shuttle bus operator Akaroa French Connection to provide better transport options from the Christchurch Bus Interchange.
Black Cat, which is celebrating 30 years in business, draws in millions of passengers each year on scenic and wildlife Akaroa cruises and regular Banks Peninsula ferry services.
The new extended building will allow for better flow of passengers on and off harbour Black Cat journeys, particularly in the peak summer operating period when it serves both onshore and cruise visitors.
“Akaroa is still voted by the passengers as their favourite stop throughout their cruises throughout New Zealand,” Milligan says.
True to their Eco-tourism pioneering roots Black Cat Cruises has worked with the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) on environmental details.
These include the generation of hot water in the most efficient manner and installing a new sewerage system, Milligan says.
Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism (CCT) chief executive Vic Allen says Black Cat Cruises’ $1 million investment is significant and recognises the Akaroa’s importance a cruise ship and tourist destination.
CCT has been working with other organisations including Christchurch City Council to help deliver the new Christchurch city visitor strategy, as well as Christchurch Airport which will add airline capacity over the next 12 months to help boost overall tourism numbers. “We’re expecting strong growth for the foreseeable future,” Allen says.
Destinations like Tekapo, Hanmer and Akaroa are drawing in extra visitors and spending across the province.
“Since the earthquakes, regional areas such as Akaroa have become even more popular with tourists. This substantial expansion project will enhance the appeal and it’s a great thing for the entire region,” Allen says.