Health Minister Greg Hunt has extended the ban on overseas travel and foreign flagged cruise ships for a further three months, all but dashing hopes of a wave season this year.
The announcement came as a bitter blow to Australia’s home-grown cruise industry, once the envy of the world with the largest number of passengers per head of the population anywhere. Just last week its leaders expressed confidence at a special conference that there was hope for bringing ships back to Australia by December. The chair of their representative body spoke of a “breakthrough”.
Mr Hunt’s announcement clearly caught many by surprise, and brought an unusually strong reaction from Cruise Lines International Association Australasia, which called for “urgent talks” with Australian governments to “break the cycle of inaction over the industry’s future”.
Cruise industry leaders are particularly upset that Australia is now the last nation with a history of attracting large numbers of cruisers to ban ships in its waters.
In Asia, Europe and America, almost all of the lines are back at sea and sailing with tens of thousands of passengers, mostly vaccinated and checked regularly for COVID-19. Royal Caribbean, for instance, has operated 459 sailings and carried 180,000 passengers since the middle of last year.
What is causing most angst is the fact that the industry claims the government has “made no progress on plans for revival”, despite regular talks and numerous plans from cruise ship owners about how they can work within health guidelines.
“Our discussions with government agencies have gone nowhere and our letters to the most senior levels of government have gone unanswered,” said CLIA Managing Director Australasia Joel Katz said.
“Other countries have not only created detailed plans to uphold safety on cruise ships in response to the pandemic, but have already resumed cruising in a responsible way.
“More than a million passengers have sailed successfully in countries where cruising has resumed – with strict health protocols in place – but in Australia our calls for detailed discussions with health authorities have been ignored.”
Mr Katz said the cruise industry had presented some of the most stringent COVID-19 measures to be found anywhere in world tourism, developed with the support of medical experts and health authorities internationally.
“Now that Australian governments have agreed on a four-phase plan for reopening with specific vaccination targets in place, we need to ensure cruising can be part of this plan,” he said.
“CLIA has outlined its own four-phase pathway to cruising’s revival, so we need governments to break the cycle of inaction and discuss how to put plans in place now so that we’re ready as conditions improve and vaccination rates rise.”
Mr Katz pointed out more than 18,000 Australian jobs ride on the industry which contributes more than $5 billion a year to the Australian economy.
“The livelihoods of thousands of Australians have been devastated while cruising has been suspended,” Mr Katz said. “These people deserve clarity and a plan for the future, so we can begin to rebuild and revive economic opportunities for communities around our coasts.”
Hopes had risen as vaccination rates soared in states like NSW, with political leaders like State Premier Gladys Berejiklian predicting an opening once the state had double-vaccinated 80 per cent of its population, seen as possible by the end of November.
Gavin Smith, MD for Royal Caribbean in Australia and NZ and chair of CLIA, told the leaders’ meeting last week “the tide was turning” and he would be pushing for the Biosecurity Act ban to be announced monthly rather than quarterly to allow for the possibility that agreement could be reached on a date for a cruise resumption.
And he maintained his positivity even after Mr Hunt’s announcement, saying the vaccination rates were on the rise.
“The rate of vaccination take up is exciting – you hear it in the Prime Minister’s voice and the Premier’s voice. It’s looking like those 70-80 per cent targets will be achieved before the end of November.
“Second, we’ve had the Federal Working Group through the Prime Minister and Mr Hunt’s office reach out to us and we’ve also had the Premier’s office reach out to us.
“Now that hasn’t happened in 18 months.”
Mr Smith said the simple message he was sending was that the conversation needs to start now, rather than in November. And he couldn’t see a valid reason why cruise would be banned over December, January and February if Australia hits its vaccination targets.
Cruise Passenger has been reporting on talks with health officials for months – but has been told that, while meetings have taken place fortnightly, health officials appeared not to have read the documents prepared. One insider told us it showed a lack of respect.
At least two lines have scheduled sailings for December – Royal Caribbean has Ovation of the Seas, an Ultraclass vessel carrying over 4,000 passengers, scheduled to arrive for cruising until March.
She is currently in Alaska, and a decision on whether or not to cancel her arrival is still under daily discussion. It would take at least six weeks to get her to Sydney and quarantine the crew, train and re-supply her for the season. So a decision would need to be made by the end of October.
P&O Australia has a Christmas cruise departing aboard the new Pacific Encounter on December 18th, followed by sailings into 2022.
Carnival Australia told Cruise Passenger: “Our cruise lines had already paused their operations to mid December so the extension of the biosecurity determination to December 17 will be no surprise to our loyal guests and suppliers.
“However, we urge federal and state governments to engage in meaningful discussions with our peak industry body, Cruise Lines International Association Australasia (CLIA) to establish an agreed pathway for the resumption of cruising in Australia.
“This is especially relevant given the prospect of significant reopening of the economy including travel when vaccination rates reach a sufficiently high level.”
Small luxury ship line Ponant has made numerous attempts to sail both in New Zealand and WA, complying with all regulations but failing to win approval at the last minute. One of the line’s vessels was heading into Auckland to dock when immigration came up with the last-minute demand that New Zealanders take non-essential jobs aboard the ship.
“It is unacceptable that an entire industry is held to ransom with the Government refusing to discuss a Restart timeline,” Ponant’s Asia Pacific chair Sarina Bratton. “Health protocols and risk mitigation management has been operating successfully for the past year on small expedition ships in Australia for Australians. These protocols are no different to those that we apply to our 13 expedition ships and the 90 expeditions we have operated over the past year.
“To deny Australians the opportunity to do coastal expeditions within Australia whilst canvassing the possibility of restarting international flights is both illogical, and devastating to the remote and regional communities who rely on the income from the expedition sector. Let alone Australia’s struggling travel agents whom book 90% of the expedition sector’s travel.
“Even with two of our small expedition ships waiting in Noumea, it will take us two months notice to restart operations. The Federal Government needs to take a leadership role by establishing a timeline for the staged restart of operations, before it is too late and an entire industry relocates to jurisdictions with a welcoming and more logical approach.”
Australia’s borders will remain closed and most international travel banned until 17 December 2021. Some commentators have noted the coincidence that Qantas expects overseas flights to resume the very next day.
For cruise, however, the problem is ship turnarounds. It takes anything up to 90 days to crew, supply, move to a destination and quarantine a crew. And the cost is huge – so gambling that the government might approve a resumption is unlikely for cash-starved cruise lines who can earn revenue elsewhere.
The news today marks 21 months since the country’s borders were closed to ward off the threat of COVID-19.
Mr Hunt’s office said today the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer “has advised that the international COVID-19 situation continues to pose an unacceptable risk to public health. The extension of the emergency period is an appropriate response to that risk.”
The statement notes these measures “can be amended or repealed at any time.”
Some believe Australians will be able to fly to Asia or Europe and cruise before they can set foot on a foreign flagged ship in Australian waters.
Two lines are sailing, however. Coral Expeditions continues to sail its three small Australian-flagged ships around Kimberley and from Queensland, and has been doing so without incident for many months.
And APT has its Caledonian Sky vessel in Western Australia and is shortly to move to other state itineraries.