Health officials open talks with cruise operators as hopes rise for a return to sailing

Health department officials are now working with the cruise industry to finally produce a plan for the phased restart of itineraries in Australia, Cruise Passenger can reveal.

The promising start made by Australia’s only locally flagged and crewed fleet, Coral Expeditions –  sailing in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania – has led to renewed optimism for small ship sailing and the season in Kimberley next month.

A Federal Health spokesperson confirmed  to Cruise Passenger that talks are underway with Health Department officials for the resumption of small ships and day or overnight cruising as a way to restart the industry.

“The Australian Government, including the Department of Health, is considering the parameters around any future resumption of cruise operations in Australia and is consulting with the AHPPC, other national health committees and the cruise industry during these considerations.

“Options being considered include a staged approach to cruise resumption which would take into account the Australian COVID-19 epidemiological situation and be consistent with the broader relaxation of COVID-19 travel restrictions, both domestic and international.

“At this time, there has been no date set for the resumption of either larger domestic or international cruises.

“Day cruises and smaller domestic cruises on ships with fewer than 100 passenger berths are permitted under the current national cruise ship ban, subject to state and territory requirements and restrictions.”

Luxury expedition line Ponant, headed here by Australian cruise veteran Sarina Bratton, has two small ships ready to sail the Kimberley.  So does Australian line APT, whose small ship Caledonian Sky is close by with a 99-passenger capacity.  And Silversea, part of the Royal Caribbean group, has the Silver Explorer rostered.

Ponant’s Le Laperouse can carry 160 passengers, though she was limited to 100 in a recent attempt to enter New Zealand. It is also bringing Le Soleal, with capacity for another 240 passengers, to the Kimberley.

The line this week released eight new itineraries targeting Australia, demonstrating a new commitment to cruising down under.

Caledonian Sky has just 54 cabins, while Silver Explorer has room for 144 passengers.

As yet, the only line officially able to sail the Kimberley is Coral Expeditions, which has three ships earmarked to tackle the enormously popular cruise destination.

Bookings for all lines are strong, making it an ideal testing ground for local cruising under Cruise Lines International Association Australasia’s policy of a “phased” resumption. APT maintains it is fully booked.

The cruise industry delivers $5 billion of business to Australia and supports thousands of jobs.

Cruise Lines International Association Australia’s MD Joel Katz told Cruise Passenger: “We’ve been reiterating the message that reinstating cruise is not about taking a risk or undoing the great work our countries have done managing COVID-19. This is also about helping to get our travel agents, regional port communities, farmers and other food suppliers, hotels, tour operators, and the broader tourism sector, back on their feet.

“The great success in other regions by cruise lines in Europe, Singapore and Taiwan, and closer to home here in Australia with Coral Expeditions already operating domestic cruising is an important step forward for the industry and the pathway to an eventual safe return of cruise in Australia”

“Coral Expeditions kicking off its first South Australia itinerary following successful cruises in Queensland and Tasmania, is encouraging news and demonstrates that there is a blueprint for the safe return of cruise offering local cruises for locals while international borders remain closed.”

The Health Department spokesperson told Cruise Passenger: “The decision by the Health Minister to implement and extend the current ban on cruise ships to 17 March 2021 was based on advice from the AHPPC. At that time, the AHPPC considered cruise ships continued to pose a high risk of transmission for COVID-19 in the current global and domestic situation. The national cruise ship ban can be amended at any time.

“Above all, the Government will need to be assured that cruise ships can operate in a COVID-safe way and that the risk of transmission is acceptably low before cruise operations will be permitted in Australian waters.”

The next important event in the cruise calendar is Australia’s own wave season starting in September, when larger vessels arrive.

While lines like Royal Caribbean told Cruise Passenger they were in talks with federal and state governments like Far North Queensland, the fate of the wave season may rest with the controlled start of Kimberley cruising.

The Horizontal Falls of The Kimberley
The Horizontal Falls of The Kimberley

“Royal Caribbean continues to work with CLIA and our industry colleagues to engage with Federal and State Governments to help them to understand the changes developed for the cruise industry’s healthy return to service, and to satisfy the relevant authorities and – most importantly – our guests, that we’ll operate in a COVID-safe way,” a Royal Caribbean spokesperson said.

These changes have been grounded in science and guided by our Healthy Sail Panel experts, and are already operating in Singapore with Quantum of the Seas. We’ll continue to engage constructively with relevant governments and officials and to work with local communities and the tourism industry, including in Far North Queensland.”

APT’s group managing director Chris Hall said: “APT is working with WA, NT and QLD Governments as well as key Federal Government departments in preparation for cruising to recommence.

The Coral Discoverer in the Kimberley
The Coral Discoverer in the Kimberley

“While our first domestic departures are still several months away, we know the situation will continue to evolve and we will continue to be guided by government regulations. We are in regular contact with all the appropriate authorities including the Federal and State Governments as well as state border control authorities.

“The interest in cruising within Australian waters has been overwhelming and we look forward to welcoming our Australian owned small ship, MS Caledonian Sky, back to Australian waters.

“MS Caledonian Sky hosts 99 guests plus crew and is scheduled to commence cruising in Cairns with two Queensland cruises, then the ship will head to Western Australia in May for our sold-out Kimberley Coast cruises. The ship will stay in the West until late September.”

Announcing the new “Australia for Australians” campaign, Ponant said:

“For Australians eager to explore our own backyard, PONANT has announced the return of two of its modern fleet of small luxury expedition ships, Le Lapérouse and Le Soléal, to Australian waters in 2021 – an exciting new collection of eight immersive ‘must-do’ itineraries featuring Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland coasts.
Ponant kimberley and western australia
Ponant expedition luxury cruises
“Australia for Australians, these new itineraries – each offering tempting back-to-back voyage opportunities – showcase the fascinating and multifaceted diversity of wilderness, wildlife, heritage and cultural encounters, many unique, found along Australia’s coastline.”
This week saw two other signals giving rise to fresh hope around the wave season.

The minister in charge of Australia’s tourism portfolio Dan Tehan made the most encouraging remarks in a year about the return of cruise ships to Australian waters, sparking a wave of optimism.

“The cruise industry has done a lot of work to make sure that cruising now is COVID safe. They’ve put protocols in place, so people should be confident to be able to go and book cruises.”

He added: “They also should be confident to be able to book, you know, wonderful vacations right across this nation, because we’ve got so many wonderful places to see – whether you’re doing it as part of a cruise around our coastline, or going to visit just the wonderful places right across the nation.”

And Royal Caribbean announced that Quantum of the Seas would stay in Singapore and continues its successful program of cruises to nowhere – leaving her poised to sail to Australia should the government allow cruising to start later this year.

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