Sydney, Australia - December 1, 2013; 7:00am Royal Carribean Cruise Liner, Radiance of the Seas docked at Circular Quay in Sydney. Sydney Opera House in background. This ship boasts floor to ceiling windows and an outdoor cinema playing first run movies.

Exclusive: Australian government studies ways to restart cruise

Australian Government departments are considering ways to restart cruise operations in Australia and are studying guidance from America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The new CDC regime to resume sailings in America was published last weekend. Most cruise lines have yet to comment on what amounts to a tough regime of testing and trial sailings.

But the Australian government has confirmed it is already studying the 40-page document as the deadline to renew its cruise ban on December 17 looms.

A government spokesman told Cruise Passenger: “Australian Government departments are considering the parameters around the future resumption of cruise operations in Australia and are considering the international approach to resumption of cruise operations, including guidance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

“When it is appropriate, the cruise ship restrictions can be amended at any time to respond to changes in the domestic and global situation.

“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 again.

“The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) continues to provide public health advice based on evidence-based research on the risks posed by cruise ships and the restrictions may be eased or extended consistent with that advice.”

Coral Expeditions, which is Australian flagged and crewed, is already sailing. And Cruise Lines International Association Australasia is talking to federal and state governments about how cruise could resume.

It has also been revealed that Graham Turner,  the boss of Flight Centre, the global travel agency, is talking to state governments about the return of cruise.

“There is general agreement from health authorities on what is safe domestically; cruise lines such as a 6000-berth MSC ship have been operating in the Mediterranean over the past couple of months with no major COVID-19 issues. Cruising is safe now if they stick to the protocols,” Mr Turner said.

The idea has been that localised cruising would mean homeported ships in, say, Queensland and NSW, would sail voyages to nowhere with only passengers from that state. The crew will be tested and so would passengers. It would be like a localised bubble.

But the CDC has taken the return to cruising to a whole other level. It’s “framework for a phased resumption of cruise ship passenger operations” has a number of measures that have cruise lines concerned.

The rules are tough, including trial cruises with volunteer passengers who will be tested daily while the line tests dining, entertainment and embarkation and evacuation procedures before each vessel obtains a certificate saying it is fit to sail.

They are also requirements  for testing at the start AND the end of each cruise.  That will mean thousands of passengers, both embarking and disembarking, will be trapped at ports while results are confirmed.

Crew will need to be test weekly. That means up to 2,000 people each week – enough work for a full medical team. So far, only Viking has fitted a PCR testing lab on one ship, though Cruise Passenger has been told others are using the cruise pause to refit medical bays with labs and isolation areas.

The CDC’s order states cruises will end if a certain threshold of cases occurs. No-one knows what the threshold might be.

So a line will need to recruit and test the crew it can apply, 30 days in advance, to operate simulated voyages with volunteer passengers.  The results may lead to the certification to resume passenger service.

As for testing symptomatic travellers — passengers and crew — the CDC said PCR rather than antigen tests should be used.

CLIA Australasia, the local representatives of 95 per cent of the cruise lines, told us: “Like the US-CDC’s announcement of a phased resumption of US cruising, and initiatives in other parts of the world for limited and controlled restart, we are advocating for a similar measured and carefully managed resumption of local cruise itineraries in Australia and NZ that work within our international border restrictions.”

Here’s how the CDC sees a cruise resumption:

All ships must be certified to sail and comply with health regulations

Ships will be certified if they have:

  • Sailed “simulated voyages” that include volunteer passengers
  • Tested embarkation and disembarkation of at terminals, including the evacuation of sick passengers or crew
  • Trialled dining and entertainment activities,
  • Tested the transfer of passengers or crew who have symptoms or have tested positive from cabins to isolation rooms and can quarantine passengers and crew

Initially, cruises will be restricted to seven days or less.  This may change depending on health conditions.

To protect communities on shore, cruise lines must have medical agreements in place to enable evacuation to hospitals of both crew and passengers, and a plan for their stay and eventual return home.