09 June 2007

UK-New Zealand passenger travel by sea - avoiding sin?

Last year the Bishop of London, Richard Chartris, was reported in the Sunday Times on 23 July 2006, as part of the Church of England's "Shrinking the Footprint" campaign, to say that taking a holiday by air was a "symptom of sin". (Subsequently the Bishop was reported to have travelled to Wittenberg in Germany by train, no doubt using nuclear-generated electricity.) The attack on this view by Ryanair Chief Executive, Michael O'Leary, as reported in the Irish Independent on 27 July 2006, was particularly robust.

Concern about the environmental impact of international air transport on the rise, but the only alternative means of international passenger transport for remote countries like New Zealand, Australia and those in the South Pacific would be by sea. It is still possible, but not cheap, to travel between the UK and New Zealand by sea with container ships offering a limited number of berths to paying passengers (see, for example, UK firm The Cruise People), as well as a few cruise ships like the QE2 operating annual round-the-world cruises. Of course, modern ships also have an environmental impact.

It was during the 1960s that air travel effectively replaced travel by ocean passenger liner as the main means of long-distance international travel and with good reason. Few people can now afford the time (what economists would call an opportunity cost) to spend weeks at sea getting to somewhere that would only take hours by aircraft.

In the 1960s, in the pre-containerisation days, I recall in Dunedin with my step-grandfather, Haxton Matthews, going on board a Union Steam Ship Company freighter that took a few passengers and was still serving the New Zealand-India route. He had served in the Royal New Zealand Navy during the Second World War and was taking a short trip by sea up the New Zealand coast. More recently I flew with my late father in a light aircraft over the QE2 as she passed down the East Coast of Northland, New Zealand - she was a truely magnificent sight.

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