As the deal with the Lake Wakatipu Steamship Company fell through, New Zealand Rail (NZR) approached Fiordland Travel again in the latter part of 1969 to see if they were interested. At the time, Fiordland Travel was looking at putting in a new ferry service from Queenstown to Mt Nicholas Station, so suddenly purchasing the TSS Earnslaw started to make sense.
After negotiations with New Zealand Rail and the Lake Wakatipu Steamship Company it was decided that Fiordland Travel would take over the operations of the TSS Earnslaw provided they:
1. Paid off all the debts incurred by The Lake Wakatipu Shipping Company
2. Continued to provide a service to back country stations.
On the 12 December, 1969 Fiordland Travel officially took over operations of the TSS Earnslaw – the rest, as they say, was history.
Not wanting to continue the performance of the NZR, Fiordland Travel knew they had to do something to increase revenue and cut costs. Running the ship 80kms to the head of the lake and to Kingston at the other end of the lake for virtually nothing was unviable. Although most of the tourists spent a couple of days in Queenstown, they were less inclined to spend the whole day on the lake when there were other things to see and do. Fiordland Travel wisely decided to use the TSS Earnslaw to run short cruises multiple times of the day.
As agreed in the contract, however, services still needed to be provided to the back country stations along the lake. So the diesel powered tug Waiomana was pressed into service which resulted in huge savings for the company, especially on coal. This move also meant that Fiordland Travel was freed up to concentrate on the more lucrative short term tourist market. Passenger numbers swelled by 67% in just one year.
Despite the new focus and growth in tourist numbers, it took 11 long years for Fiordland Travel to break even. In 1972 however, they suffered the biggest loss since taking over the TSS Earnslaw when they resumed trips down the lake to Kingston to connect with the steam train, the Kingston Flyer. This venture proved to be a failure as the train did not operate at times that suited tourists and the company was forced back into doing shorter trips.
In addition to the normal maintenance work carried out during its annual inspection when it is hauled out the water, a major refit was carried out above decks in 1982. The cabin was enclosed and a new viewing area created on the promenade deck to enable tourists to see the engine room in operation.
In 1998, under the Queenstown-Lakes District Plan, the TSS Earnslaw was listed as Category One Heritage, the first vessel in New Zealand to be protected by a district plan.
Today, the TSS Earnslaw serves as a wonderful reminder of a bygone steam age, and a connection to Queenstown’s pioneering past. As one of only a handful of coal-fired steamships in operation around the world and the only one in the southern hemisphere, a cruise aboard the TSS Earnslaw is truly a unique experience.