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Norwegian Jewel
The Norwegian Jewel entering Sydney Harbour

Key meeting with NSW Health Minister set for next week over resumption of cruising

Australia’s cruise restart could take a major step forward next Wednesday when Health Minister Brad Hazzard sits down for crucial talks with cruise industry chiefs.

The meeting, while one of many, is seen as vital. Eighty per cent has often been cited by the federal government as a trigger to restart local cruise sailings.  The NSW fully-vaccinated rate is at 89.1 per cent and the national rate not far behind, and many members of the NSW state government and business are  behind a cruise restart.

Business Sydney executive director Paul Nicolaou, who was instrumental in getting talks started after months of stalemate between the government and the industry, told Cruise Passenger: “I understand that the NSW Government has set up a group within the Premier & Cabinet Department which includes Steve Cox from Destination NSW, someone from Health and a few others to coordinate the way forward once the Federal Government gives the green light.”

Scott Farlow, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer and Minister dealing with COVID issues, who is also supporting a return, cites Premier Domenic Perrottet and his deputy as supporters keen to find a way forward.

But the veteran health minister may prove tough to convince, given his NSW Health Department copped so much flak after the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock and discharge 2,700 passengers, sparking an outbreak of the biggest single source in Australia.

On Thursday, he told a NSW parliamentary committee that he still had “concerns” about a return of cruising, and was “very cautious”.

Cruise Lines International Association Australasia (CLIA) MD Joel Katz, who will be at the talks, echoed the sentiments.  “We are also cautious…but we just want the talks to begin.”

The Biosecurity Act order currently preventing foreign-flagged ships from entering Australia is due to expire on December 17. An extension until March would be a huge blow, and mean the cancellation yet again of hundreds of family holidays aboard ships from Carnival Cruises and P&O Australia.

There is hope after Australia’s success with vaccinations that the act could be extended – but with alterations that allow for cruise ships to return to Australian shores.

So much has changed since then, with new health protocols and medical facilities aboard ships.  ironically, the Ruby Princess became Princess Cruises’ sixth vessel back in service, leaving on Sunday for a week-long California coast journey.

She will be sailing from San Francisco to destinations including Mexico, Hawaii, the California coast, Alaska and the Panama Canal on five- to 15-day cruises through 2023.

Australia, on the other hand, is the last country refusing to resume cruising – despite the huge economic cost of $5bn in revenue and 18,000 jobs.

Cruise Passenger sources suggest that there is an optimism in the industry that the federal government will concede that the time has come to re-allow cruise ships back and pave the way for a return early next year.

One key issue remaining is how crew are to be quarantined.

At present, talks about a cruise return are stuck in a rut.

As far as federal government bodies go, the Department of Health and Australia Border Force are both pointing the finger towards the Department of Infrastructure as being responsible for determining the fate of cruise.  The Department of Infrastructure told Cruise Passenger: “The resumption of cruise operations and other discretionary forms of travel continues to be considered by Australian Government agencies in the context of the National Plan to transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response.”

“Once 80 per cent vaccination has been reached there is no reason why domestic and international cruising cannot begin this summer in a similar way to the opening up of international aviation.”

The Department  would not directly indicate if this figure refers to a nationwide standard, or a threshold at when each state could resume cruising. But Australia is currently expected to reach this milestone in December.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrotet has already expressed enthusiasm for the return of cruise, however, speaking to the office of his Liberal Party number two Stuart Ayres, suggests that the states are still yet to receive a framework from the federal government that allows them to resume cruise on their own terms.

Many lines are already planning their return, with Norwegian Cruise Lines offering big reductions on sailings in March and April. See more here

Mr Katz told Cruise Passenger success on Wednesday would just be the start.  Cruise lines still need to get agreement on the protocols for sailings – would they just be in one state’s waters, could there be two (Victoria opened its borders with NSW today).

The process:

Federal government approval

State government approval of the protocols to allow sailings

10-12 weeks to re-crew ships and sail them to Australia