At America’s Cup, Auckland Laments the Boats That Didn’t Come

As the executive director of a marine trades organization, Peter Busfield makes it his business to know which superyachts are sailing to New Zealand because of their high value to his members and their businesses.

But last fall, months before the country was set to host races in the America’s Cup, he began to notice a disheartening pattern.

Global-positioning data — tracked in real time by multiple websites and apps — showed dozens of the multimillion-dollar yachts headed to New Zealand for the event turning around and heading for home. By October, it was well known that the country’s borders were closed as part of the government’s strict response to the coronavirus pandemic. Other than a few exceptions, New Zealand had informed the world that its drawbridge would only come down for citizens and residents.

The consequences for the America’s Cup, sailing’s most prized trophy, were significant. Each superyacht — about 150 were scheduled to arrive for the cup, which will begin its final round of races next week — represented millions of dollars that their owners might inject into the economy over the weeks and months they would stay, in the form of boat maintenance and refits as well as the usual spending on pricey restaurants, helicopter joy rides and private air travel.

“It’s like a magnet,” said Busfield, who leads the NZ Marine Industry Association, an alliance representing dozens of boatbuilders, sailmakers, mechanics and suppliers who make their livings in the boat business. “Wherever the America’s Cup goes, you get the corporate backers that want their corporate box, and the best one is a superyacht because it is out on the water.”

The superyacht class has no universal definition, except this: If you need to ask how big one has to be to qualify, or how much they cost, you probably can’t afford one. Generally, a vessel more than 78 feet long gets the superyacht label, but one thing is certain: Their annual operating costs can run in the millions for maintenance, crew, gas, insurance and more, especially for a new generation of owners bent on exploring rather than lounging.

Similar to Formula 1 auto racing, the America’s Cup attracts a distinct group of spectators in relatively large numbers: people with very high net worths. At major events, they can shower a host city’s economy with money, a key to justifying what a government spends — on infrastructure upgrades and fees paid to event organizers — to serve as host.

So, whatever the reason, an America’s Cup without the glamour of superyachts and their owners qualifies as a missed opportunity for New Zealand’s economy and its marine industry.

“The America’s Cup would have been a big attraction to boats that wouldn’t ordinarily come down to this part of the world,” said Jim McColl, the general manager of Southern Spars, an Auckland-based company that makes masts for the world’s biggest sailing yachts.

In a 2017 economic assessment produced by a New Zealand government office, superyachts were seen as one of the biggest contributors to making the current America’s Cup a financial success.

The report predicted that if 159 superyachts came to the races, the direct spending to the local economy would reach 300 million in New Zealand dollars (about $217 million). The figure was equivalent to about 120,000 tourists from nearby Australia, visitors who spend an average of a few thousand dollars per person on a New Zealand vacation.

The revenue projection helped to justify the decision by the federal government and the Auckland Council to invest almost $150 million in wharf and other infrastructure spending to prepare for the cup.

But the report, criticized for being erroneous and overly rosy, also predicted the average number of superyachts visiting New Zealand in a non-America’s Cup year would rise from 60 to around 160 by 2035. “The cup would have been the catalyst for that,” McColl said.

With such high stakes for the country’s marine industry, organizations like Busfield’s NZ Marine Industry Association and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the club behind New Zealand’s 2017 cup victory, spent much of 2020 lobbying the government to allow superyachts — and their owners and families — into the country. The government had already carved out similar provisions for other big-spending industries like film production, including flying in the director James Cameron and his crew to finish a new series of “Avatar” movies being filmed here.

The lobbying had some success. Since July, New Zealand’s government has allowed in about 20 boats that committed to spend an agreed-upon five-figure minimum for repairs. However, only the crew can sail in on the boats, shutting out the superyacht owners eager to come to watch the cup races.