When Myrianthe Riddy and her husband Peter bought a small cruise operation in Mandurah in late 2016, Mr Riddy saw it as an opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps and add a lobster fishing boat to the fleet.
In a serendipitous twist, Mrs Riddy recognised the need to develop a broader range of products to get a quick return on the couple’s investment, and thanks to a change of Western Australian legislation to allow recreational rock lobster fishing, Mandurah Cruises’ wild seafood adventures were born.
“When we bought the business, we wanted to grow the business in the international market, but we also wanted to do things that were very authentic to Mandurah,” Mrs Riddy told Australia China Business Review.
“Mandurah of course is famous for its crabs and its cray fishing”
“So, we thought about what kind of customers would be interested in coming on a high-end cray fishing tour or a crabbing tour.
“Chinese customers are well-known for their love of western rock lobster, so we realised that if we wanted to generate a quick return on our investment, we needed to get quite good at Chinese tourism.”
China’s appetite for western rock lobster, colloquially known as a crayfish, is well documented – the industry is worth around $500 million to the state’s economy each year, with most of the lobsters caught off the WA coast shipped live to China.
The export industry’s been boosted by the 2015 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which repealed high tariffs on Australian seafood that had previously stifled the sector’s growth.
Western Australia’s state government also recently relaxed tight regulations governing recreation fishing of western rock lobsters, part of push to stimulate new tourism markets.
The new rules, which allow for year-round recreational lobster fishing subject to strict quotas, allowed Mrs Riddy and her husband to develop a wild seafood experience – a three-hour tour that departs from the picturesque Mandurah estuary, cruising past pods of playful local dolphins en route to a lobster-laden reef around half an hour offshore.
Guests are given the opportunity to hook up and pull in lobster pots, are educated about the lobster fisheries and the lobsters themselves, then return to the calm waters of the estuary to enjoy a sumptuous feast of local seafoods, including the lobsters they just caught, washed down by the finest Western Australian wines.
“What you can do a lot of in WA is charter fishing, you find a guy with a charter boat, who is probably a professional fisherman, and he will take you out fishing,” Mrs Riddy said.
“But there aren’t that many boats that give you a really nice, luxurious experience.
“So, for us to make money straight away, we knew we had to make our guests feel like ‘wow, this is luxurious, this is a bit different from what else is in the market’, because you can just go out on a fishing boat and you’ll have a wonderful time, but it’s probably not tailored and luxurious.
“What’s important to us is that our tour is as hands-on as possible.
“We don’t want guests watching our crew and take photos, we want them to handle the lobsters and understand how we fish for them, and hopefully to go away with a bit of learning about the creatures.”
Mrs Riddy estimated that more than 2,500 Chinese tourists have experienced the tour since its launch in late 2017, while its profile was steadily growing in Chinese tourism markets.
She put the tour’s success down to her and her husband’s attention to detail, particularly with regards to the fit-out of the fishing vessel, the Reel Affair II.
“We had to be able to get guests to pay a certain price point,” Mrs Riddy said.
“These are people are international tourists and they will be staying at hotels such as The Westin in Perth, they’ll be dining at Nobu and the like.
“They are used to certain standards, so we had to try and replicate that, as far as you can, with a cray fishing boat.
“The cray fishing boat that we bought was a pretty beaten up one, it was a very good boat when we bought it, but it had been used by nine guys who lived on it for sessional cray fishing
“We spent six months restoring it to make it cosmetically nice and completely safe for passengers.
“It’s a very attractive boat now, I think it’s probably the only cray fishing boat in Western Australia with pot plants on board.”
Mrs Riddy said after just more than a year of operating the tours, Mandurah Cruises was looking to expand its fleet, having already converted another of its boats into a cray fishing vessel, and plans in motion to purchase another.
And while many may balk at the hard work that running a swiftly expanding tour operation may entail, Mrs Riddy said she was looking forward to the next phase of China-focused Mandurah Cruises growth.
“Chinese guests are all up to have fun - they are always very high energy and fun to look after,” she said.
“What I’ve learned is that Chinese people are massive foodies, and sitting around, eating and talking is what they love.
“They are hugely sociable, and they share a sense of bonding over food that Australians don’t share.
“Aussies bond over beer or alcohol, while alcohol appears to be a lower component of Chinese socialising and food is a much higher component.”