5 March 2024

Luxury river cruising set to arrive in the Riverina with PS Australian Star launching in 2025

| Vanessa Hayden
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paddle steamer

Construction of the new PS Australian Star is underway and the vessel is expected to be launched on the Murray River in June 2025. Photo: Murray River Paddlesteamers.

Murray River Paddlesteamers will be putting the international spotlight on the Echuca Moama region when it launches its new $6.75 million luxury cruise vessel in June next year.

The PS Australian Star is set to redefine river cruising and will be the largest paddle steamer in the Southern Hemisphere at 35 metres long.

For the owners, brothers Craig and Rohan Burgess and local identity and skipper Neil Hutchinson, who bought the business in 2015, it has been a long-held dream to design and build such a boat, but there was one stumbling block – money.

That changed as a result of COVID-19 and the Victorian Government’s ensuing regional tourism infrastructure fund.

“The plans were always there that we’d love to get into a position where we could build a new boat but basically, we never had enough capital so it was put on the backburner,” Craig said.

“Our vessel PS Emmylou is great but with only eight cabins we are restricted on the size of groups we can take and it mainly caters to the free independent traveller (FIT) market.”

They were encouraged to apply for the infrastructure grant, which became a turning point.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to jump through the window of opportunity when it appears to be open, which is what we did, and we got awarded $2.25 million, which is basically 33 per cent funding,” Craig said.

“We said, right, we can bring this forward and build it, knowing we could then attract markets we were missing out on, such as groups, coaches and international travellers.”

Boasting 19 plush and modern staterooms, each opening to a deck and featuring an ensuite, air conditioning, complimentary Wi-Fi, luxury linen and a TV entertainment system, the Australian Star will offer accommodation akin to a 4.5-star hotel.

The cruises will depart from Echuca, with special opening prices starting from $2412 per person (pp) for the three-night Discovery Cruise, $3204 pp for the four-night Explorer Cruise and $5652 pp for the seven-night All the Rivers Run Cruise.

“It will be history on the outside and contemporary with a hue to the past on the inside. We are bringing the colours of the Australian bush and its gum trees to the interior,” Craig said.

“For us, this is big, and it is big – the biggest paddle steamer in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Already we’ve seen the coaches and the major touring groups come forward as it’s going to be the only luxury river cruising in Australia, full stop.”

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The Australian Star is being built in a specially designed facility beside the Murray River in Mildura and is a 19-month project. When launched, it will take over the role provided until now by PS Emmylou, which was built in 1983 and refurbished in 2018.

“The Emmylou will go back to doing lunch and sightseeing cruises and in the peak season she will do some dinner cruises,” Craig said.

“She’ll be retiring from overnighter accommodated cruising but will be available for private charters and special events.

“Emmylou is such an iconic boat and we still get asked every day, ‘Can we have lunch on Emmylou?’ and we’ve always had to say, ‘No, you can’t’, but next year we’ll be able to say, ‘Yes, you can!'”

Murray River Paddlesteamers has steadily built its extended-cruise market, surveying customers and conducting feasibility studies into its potential.

“Essentially, Emmylou has always been a live business case for us,” Craig said.

“We asked ourselves, do people want to do three, four-night cruising? We started off doing two and three-night cruising. We then made it three and four nights, along with one six-night cruise once a month, to see if people wanted to cruise longer, and incredibly the six-night cruise became very popular.

“The good thing about testing out the six-night itinerary is that we know people want to cruise longer, they want to sit and relax and just experience the river.

“We believe the seven-night cruise on the Australian Star in bigger cabins, on a more luxurious vessel, with more public spaces, is going to work, there’s no doubt.”

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Australian Star will sport a modern, energy-efficient, hybrid diesel/steam-propulsion system featuring a vintage, refurbished 1907 Richard Garrett and Sons wood-fired steam engine, adding a touch of nostalgia and authenticity to the journey.

Until now, the business has relied primarily on repeat customers and that No.1 promotional tool – word-of-mouth – people telling their friends about their experiences.

That, too, will change, with a salesperson on the books for the first time, entrusted with spreading the word further and wider.

“Our guests have been mainly Australian, with a small number of international visitors, but the new product will bring a whole new customer into the area,” Craig said.

Australian Pacific Tours (APT) is now marketing the product to the world and is expected to take up 16 of the seven-night departures.

This will inject a considerable amount of extra business into the region and to the operators lucky enough to be included along the river as part of the cruise itinerary.

“The tour will attract some 4000 people a year, who will also do other things in the region while they are here,” Craig said.

“It’s going to be a hero product and is going to put the region in the spotlight, and the best thing about it is that it’s generational, it’s not going away.

“Whether we own the business in 10 years or not, the boat’s not going anywhere, it will hopefully be here forever.”

For more details on the opening specials and the Australian Star cruise itineraries, visit Murray River Paddlesteamers.

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