It seems quaint now that just a few decades ago, a journey from London to Sydney was measured in weeks, rather than hours.
Most international travel was by sea, with passengers enjoying day after day of deck games, exotic foreign ports and for the lucky few, a dinner invitation to the captain’s table.
Before World War II, just 20,000 to 30,000 cruise passengers took that leisurely trip to Sydney by sea each year.
But by the late 1950s, five times that number were stepping ashore in Sydney— Australia’s ambitious post-war immigration program was in full swing.
Something had to be done; a new facility had to be created to handle the growing number of passengers.
This was the setting for the opening in December 1960, of Sydney’s new Sydney Cove Passenger Terminal at West Circular Quay and the subsequent arrival of the first cruise vessel “Oriana” on 30 December 1960.
Now the Overseas Passenger Terminal, it remains Australia’s premier international cruise ship terminal.
The location, for the planners of the day, was obvious. Circular Quay is thought to be where the sailors, settlers, convicts and troops of the First Fleet stepped ashore on 26 January 1788.
It was from Sydney Cove that all development spread during the early years of the colony.
Wharves, docks and warehouses spread along the western side of the cove and during the nineteenth century major reclamation works changed the face of the cove. It was renamed Circular Quay.
By the 1870s expansion of trade and the need to be near the rail network saw much of the shipping trade relocate to Darling Harbour. However, at Sydney Cove, passenger transport became the focus.
During the twentieth century dramatic changes occurred at Circular Quay.
On the western side, the Commissariat store built in 1809 was replaced in 1940 by the headquarters of the Maritime Services Board— which is now the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Warehouses which had begun servicing the wool trade a century earlier were demolished in the 1950s.
By then larger passenger ships with their needs
for customs clearance and visitor facilities had prompted development of specialised facilities, initially at Pyrmont then at Woolloomooloo.
However, these were always stop-gap measures and Sydney Cove was considered ideal for a new cruiser passenger terminal.
It was close to public transport and was situated
in a busy commercial centre with a rich local
history: the gateway to the nation.
Built on reclaimed land in front of the historic Rocks warehouses, the new terminal was designed to accommodate the surge in the passenger cruise ship industry world-wide.
Preliminary work on the new facility began in 1956, with construction work taking place between 1958 and 1960.
The Annual Reports of the Maritime Services Board (MSB) during this period tell the story:
Sydney Cove and Circular Quay – MSB Annual Report 1956/57
Extensive investigations have been undertaken at the site proposed for the new major passenger terminal on the western side of Sydney Cove in the position occupied by the existing Nos. 4 and 5 Berths.
This additional facility for the passenger trade has been made necessary by the continued growth of the tourist traffic at the port and particularly by the proposals for new passenger liners of from 40,000 tons to 45,000 tons, which are expected to take up service by 1960.
The two liners capturing the attention of the MSB at the time were the superliners Oriana and the Canberra, vessels soon to be launched for the England-Australia route:
According to the 1957/58 Annual Report of the MSB:
The new terminal, which will be of modern design, will have three main levels, and will contain special facilities to provide for the comfort of passengers and their friends and the expeditious handling of baggage. The substructure of the new terminal is being planned and built on lines which are practically new in this country.
Instead of the conventional wharf supported on piles, interlocking reinforced concrete caissons will be constructed to form the apron, the area behind being filled with sand dredged from the harbour.
The new Sydney Cove Passenger Terminal was officially opened on 20 December 1960 by Deputy Premier Jack Renshaw, Treasurer and Minister for Lands. The ground floor was taken up with cargo handling and the first floor catered for passengers and customs facilities.
The first vessel to use the terminal was the Oriana which arrived in Sydney on 30 December 1960 on its maiden voyage from Southampton. At 45,000 tonnes and with 2,000 passengers, the Oriana was briefly the largest passenger liner in service on the UK to Australia route, until the introduction of the 45,733 tonne Canberra in 1961. However, the Canberra could never match the Oriana for speed.
From 1981 to 1986 the Oriana was a cruise ship operating out of Sydney and tens of thousands of her passengers passed through the terminal.
However by the 1980's the price of air travel had dropped to a point where it became an affordable option for the majority of travellers and long-distance travel by sea became much less attractive.
By 1983, when an ideas competition was run to gather suggestions for re-use of the terminal, it
was suggested that up to one third of the terminal was obsolete.
A 1985-87 design by Lawrence Nield and Partners was adopted for the Sydney Cove Passenger Terminal and substantial modifications, including restaurants and cafes, took place as part of the lead up to the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations.
Given its historical local significance to the continuation of shipping in Sydney Cove, the Passenger Terminal has been listed on Sydney Ports Corporation’s section 170 State Agency Heritage Register.
The NSW Heritage office notes in its “Statement of Significance” which supports the listing:
“The site is important for its ongoing historical use as a commercial and passenger shipping facility and its early role as a public gateway to the city. The building displays a twentieth century approach to adaptive re-use in response to changing community needs and, in its fabric, illustrates layers of its own history and use.
Sydney Ports Corporation oversaw another major revamp of the terminal which was unveiled in 2001, following a $22 million renovation.
This remodelling opened up more of Sydney’s harbour foreshore to the public, with the terminal featuring new restaurants, a licensed hotel, new lifts, air conditioning and outside dining areas, all creating a waterfront destination for tourists and the public.
These renovations also included important restoration work to Arthur Murch’s historical mural “Foundation of European Settlement”, which hangs on the northern end of the Customs Hall.
Opening the renovated terminal, the then Transport Minister, Carl Scully, said that 100,000 cruise ship passengers were travelling through Sydney each year, generating $30 million in benefits to NSW businesses.
He said that in 2001, 60 cruise ships were visiting Sydney.
A decade later, Sydney’s cruise passenger numbers have reached 300,000 and 150 ships will visit Sydney this season, injecting $190 million into the economy.
In releasing this year’s cruise numbers, the New South Wales Treasurer and Minister for Ports and Waterways Eric Roozendaal commented:
“The number of cruise ship visits this season confirms Sydney’s importance as Australia’s major cruise hub and its position as the leading cruise destination in Australia.
Tens of thousands of those passengers still experience the unparalleled thrill of berthing at the Overseas Passenger Terminal and a breath-taking view of the city and the Opera House.
As Lonely Planet advises travellers: “For a killer harbour view, head up to the level-four observation deck in the turret on the northern end.”
The OPT remains a great facility in a great cruise destination—a drawcard for international and domestic cruise passengers.
In addition, after fifty years and for hundreds of thousands of Australians, the Overseas Passenger Terminal signifies something even more profound.
It is where they first set foot in their new home.