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Is the key to restarting Australian cruising a 12-hour docking delay for ships with COVID cases

It’s a tale of two continents: in America, today marks the end of the mandatory health protocols on cruise ships and a change to a voluntary system.  In Australia, cruise ships remain banned and a law change to allow them back is still stuck in Parliament and might not be voted on before the end of March.

Among suggestions in the Australian Biosecurity Amendment (Enhanced Risk Management) Bill 2021 is a docking delay of up to 12 hours which can be ordered by a Biosecurity Officer until he is sure there is no threat of disease from the ship.

Like the rest of us, cruise ships have been hit by Omicron. Almost every ship sailing in America has had cases, and the same goes for Asia and Europe. But most countries espousing the idea that we should try and reclaim our lives are saying:  “So what?”

But not Australia.

Here’s what the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a US Senate hearing earlier this week: “The fact that the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding the compliance with the Conditional Sail Order [CSO] without the order even necessarily needing to be in place is a real testimony to how well that has worked and how we work collaboratively with the industry.”

That’s why their sail order expires today.

The CDC made the recommendation despite the fact that there has been a 30-fold increase in Covid cases on ships over the last two weeks because of the omicron variant.

Dr Walensky said she expects most cruise lines will continue to follow the order voluntarily.

Indeed, she made special mention of Alaskan communities which rely on cruise ships for their livelihoods.  She said the cruise industry had  “undertaken extraordinary precautions to make sure that people are protected from this virus.”

And she added: “I want to make sure that Alaskan communities and businesses can have a season this coming year, and right now people are making their decisions as to whether or not to book a trip to Alaska for the summer.”

There is no doubt cruise, like hotels, restaurants and resorts, has been hit by Omicron.  The big headlines were reserved for the Ruby Princess – known in Australia for sparking one of our biggest COVID outbreaks. She docked in San Francisco on Thursday with a dozen COVID cases. But she was not alone.

According to The Washington Post, Coronavirus has been found on 92 of the ships sailing in the US as part of the resurgence of cruise. Royal Caribbean has cancelled four cruises and designated the Serenade of the Seas as a quarantine ship.

But Omicron has also been found in hotels, resorts, restaurants and just about everywhere. Including Australia.

Cruise Lines International Association pointed out the cruise industry continues to achieve significantly lower rates of occurrence of COVID-19 — 33 percent lower than land based tourism venues.

According to the CDC’s colour-coding system, a cruise ship may be determined to be “yellow” – and, therefore, subject to CDC observation – if a threshold of just 0.10 percent or more passengers (i.e., 7 out of 6,500) have tested positive in the last seven days, or if even just one crew member tests positive.

It will be two years in March since the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney, sparking over 900 infections and leading to 28 deaths. Princes Cruises told USA Today: “As with all Princess itineraries, this cruise is operated as a vaccinated cruise, as defined by the U.S. CDC and with guest and crew vaccination rates approaching 100%.”

So what happens next in Australia?

Well the bill is going through parliament to improve reporting, which may mean cruise ships will need to offer a 12-hour buffer before docking if there is COVID on board. But there is no guarantee it will pass before the cruise ban’s next milestone of February 17.

And even if it does, it would take 60-90 days before we see a foreign-flagged ship. So May and and the start of winter.

Still time, however, for a cruise season in Kimberley…if the state and federal governments want to make this happen.

CLIA Australasia welcomed the news from American and said:  “This change by the CDC sends a clear message to governments in our region that the Covid protocols the industry has presented are effective. Cruising is the only segment of tourism that mandates high levels of vaccination and 100% testing of all passengers and crew to mitigate COVID-19, and the cruise industry is the only area of tourism that continuously monitors, collects and reports COVID case information.”

Earlier, CLIA MD Joel Katz said: “It’s time governments recognised that cruising has gone above and beyond most other sectors during this pandemic, and ended the different treatment that hurts travel industry professionals so deep

“No setting is immune from COVID-19 and we are indeed seeing cases being detected on cruise ships…the difference however is that cruise ships are subject to stringent science-based measures that include testing and vaccination requirements before boarding…this isn’t true in your local shops, pubs, theatres or most other land-based settings, and it’s now clear the incidence of COVID-19 is far lower on cruise ships than it is on land.”

Locally based Carnival lines like Carnival Cruises and P&O have already performed somersaults on sailings. Now Carnival has extended its pause in Australian operations, with Carnival Splendor cancelled through to 26 Apr, and voyages on Carnival Spirit through to 28 April.