Although liner voyages became a thing of the past, the same could not be said of the seasonal cruise ship market, which had its local origins in the Union Company’s 19th-century Fiordland and South Pacific excursions. Cruise ships began to take off in the 1980s, fuelled in part by the popularity of the television sitcom The love boat.
In the early 21st century, every summer New Zealand ports saw a variety of ships, hosting brief calls by round-the-world cruisers and serial visits by ships dedicated to the Australasian circuit. They were also visited by small specialist expedition ships, usually chasing wildlife opportunities at smaller ports and anchorages.
Cruise ships were now the biggest vessels visiting the country, straining resources in some places at peak times. Several ports hosted the massive new 348-metre-long Ovation of the Seas in the summer of 2016/17. The 167,800-ton ship carried more than 6,500 passengers and crew.
The 2019/20 cruise ship season ended abruptly in mid-March 2020 because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The shrinking merchant marine
Few New Zealanders now worked at sea, and local shipowners had almost vanished. In 1989 the government privatised its unprofitable Shipping Corporation of New Zealand (set up in 1974). In 1994 it opened the coast to international competition. Official policy was that New Zealand was a ship-using rather than a ship-operating nation. By 1999 South Pacific Shipping, Tasman Express Line, even the once-mighty Union Steam Ship Company, had pulled out. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of ships on the New Zealand shipping register increased slightly from 2,977 to 3,051, but their total gross registered tonnage nearly halved from 482,180 to 253,739, reflecting the reduction in large trading vessels.
One area of growth, the Cook Strait ferry services, was marked by volatility. The rail ferries shared the route with a succession of competitors, and fast catamarans vied for business. In 2020 three Interisland Line ships competed with two Strait Shipping vessels on the Wellington–Picton run.
Those New Zealanders who earned their living in shipping mostly did so ashore, as ship agents, freight forwarders, marine surveyors and the like. The Cook Strait ferries and a few coasters were still locally crewed, but most sea jobs were in harbour ferries, excursion craft and deep-sea trawlers, or in highly specialised craft such as underwater cable-layers.