From fine dining while cruising through the clouds to bungee jumping, one Palmerston North academic believes airships could be the next big thing in tourism.
A life-long airships enthusiast, Massey University School of Aviation assistant lecturer Isaac Henderson decided to build a business case for a return of the “cruise ships of the sky” for his masters degree thesis.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound – major aeronautical manufacturers such as Locheed-Martin are working on developing modern airships to carry freight.
Airships are basically large balloons, filled with a lighter-than-air-gas, with engines and passenger compartments strapped on them. At the turn of the 20th century, they carried aristocrats, world leaders and the fabulously wealthy on luxurious journeys – until they were replaced by aeroplanes.
“It created this conception that airships were really dangerous. Then World War II started, aeroplanes became more advanced, and airships were gone.”
Henderson said that despite a growing airship revival, nobody was looking at the tourism potential of going back to their original use.
“Just imagine sitting down to a good meal and a glass of wine while watching the Milford Sound pass below you – a five-star restaurant in the air.”
To figure out if there was a market for that, Henderson did some research with 500 people in Queenstown.
To help convey his idea, he turned to British transport designer Mac Byers, who provided artists’ renderings for the study.
Henderson found there was a sizeable market for both scenic flights and cruises, and novel adventure tourism.
“As airships are lighter than air, they can easily hover in one place, so some study participants asked why not bungee jump at 5000 feet? I have to admit it really surprised me.”
Some even wanted to go for a walk across the top of the balloon mid-flight.
The most popular suggestion, which almost every participant said they would pay good money for, was a three-hour scenic lunch or dinner flight, with an option to pay extra for an adventure activity.
Henderson said with New Zealand’s reputation for innovative adventure tourism, it would be the perfect place to demonstrate modern airships’ potential.
Henderson kept his thesis under wraps for two years. Between studying fulltime towards his PhD, and working fulltime at the School of Aviation, he never found the time to have a proper go at turning his idea into a reality.
But, he said, the concept might yet take off.