The opening of the Kingston-Queenstown road on April 4, 1936 had a detrimental effect on the steamer business. Passenger numbers dropped by 47% in 1937 and the NZR made a loss of around £3000 during the year. This was in contrast with the previous four years where the steamers had run at a profit.

The second blow to the steamers came when the Queenstown-Glenorchy road opened in November 1962. Through the completion of the road Glenorchy became easily accessible, reducing the residents’ reliance on the TSS Earnslaw and challenging its very existence.

Sheep on board
27 April 2011

Ironically though, during the 1961-62 period, the TSS Earnslaw carried more passengers than any year previously. The hope was that as the freight side of the business declined, tourism would grow to sustain the business.

However, that was not to be as the situation continued to worsen over the next five years. With the New Zealand Railways convinced that the TSS Earnslaw was near the end of her economic life, they approached Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys) to take over its operations in 1967. Busy with other more pressing issues, Fiordland Travel merely showed a passing interest in the opportunity.

By 1968, the situation was starting to look grim as the TSS Earnslaw made an operating loss of $43,000. So on 1 Jan, 1969 the TSS Earnslaw was leased to an Auckland group who were to manage its operations. This group (who formed the Lake Wakatipu Steamship Company) were unable to purchase the TSS Earnslaw due to financial difficulties and ultimately had to forfeit the option. During this wrangle between the government and the Lake Wakatipu Steamship Company, the government was forced to send in the Navy to occupy the TSS Earnslaw for a couple of months.

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Other royalty to travel on board have been the King and Queen of Belgium, the Prince of Thailand, the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

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