They have only been lightly touched by the pandemic – they have just one active case this week – but the Northern Territory government has issued orders that make cruise stops in Darwin a near impossibility.

As Australia awaits news on whether or not there will be a Kimberley cruise season in Western Australia this year – at least six lines are hoping the answer is yes – the NT Chief Health officer issued an order on Friday saying no cruise with over 100 people on board – including the crew – could enter territorial waters.

And only two ships would be allowed at any one time.

Cruise operators labelled the rules “unworkable” while local paper the NT News reported WA would pick up $20 million of badly needed business from Darwin. “$20m blow to Darwin as ban allows WA to steal expedition ships” said the NT News headline today, saying 5,000 tourists would now give Darwin a miss.

Cruise lines Ponant, Silversea, Scenic, APT, Aurora and Aussie-flagged Coral Expeditions are all down to sail Kimberley once the WA Government gives the go-ahead.

For Coral Expeditions, which has been sailing since last year, flag ships Geographer and Adventurer carry 99 passengers and 48 crew. Coral Discoverer, however, can carry 76 guests.

The line’s General Manager Jeff Gillies told Cruise Passenger that  Coral Discoverer would continue sailings in NT, but the other two vessels would sail Broome to Broome, missing out Darwin.

Guests who had planned to board or disembark in Darwin would take a charter-flight from Broome so their onward travel was not disrupted. Apart from the port stop, the only other change would be sea sailings, and he is confident there is plenty for guests to see and do without the NT stops.

Talks would continue, but for April and May at least the new itineraries were likely to apply.

Mr Gillies said: “We have been having good talks with NT Health.  But we are disappointed that this information came very late to inform our passengers.”

NT Health may have become concerned about the number of lines bidding to sail in Kimberley, and how they might handle any medical emergency.

Coral expeditions had been intending to use Darwin as a turnaround port for its fleet, but would now shift refuelling to Broome instead.

According to the NT News, operators say it’s not possible to operate profitably with 99 including crew.

The Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie said in a report: “The owner and operator of a cruise vessel must ensure that the vessel does not enter Territory waters if: (a) there are more than 100 persons, including crew members, on board the vessel; or (b) there are 2 or more cruise vessels already in Territory waters.

“The owner and operator of a cruise vessel must ensure that the vessel: (a) does not enter Port Darwin unless at least 14 days have elapsed since the vessel last berthed in either of the following: (i) an Australian port that is within an area that, at the time the vessel enters Port Darwin, is a COVID-19 hotspot; port outside Australia; and (b) does not enter a port in the Territory, other than Port Darwin, unless the vessel: (a) has first berthed at Port Darwin; and (b) has not left Territory waters since berthing at Port Darwin; and (c) does not enter any port in the Territory while another cruise vessel is berthed at the port.”

Ponant’s Chairman Sarina Bratton said, “The States and Territory are all waiting for the Federal Government to provide their Framework for a phased resumption of cruise activity. The intent of this framework is to provide guidelines to each State and Territory to commence expedition and/or cruise activity at a level they feel comfortable with doing so under their respective State/Territory Health Frameworks. The Federal Draft Framework provides for small, expedition ship activity as its first step, then moves to larger vessel capacities in a staged approach.

“Under the principles announced by the Chief Health Officer of the NT, it does not allow any of the international operators to operate, nor any domestic operations with more than 100 persons (pax and crew). This effectively kills the Kimberley operations using Darwin as the homeport. In a recent meeting with Hugh Heggie the NT CHO, it was pleasing to hear him and the Deputy CHO both say that it is “not if, but when” they will be ready to resume activity.
“Of course, this present position causes us all great concern for the many thousands of Australians who have confirmed bookings for the 2021 Kimberley season; the many Darwin based suppliers, hotels, ground operators, food and beverage suppliers, all of whom have long term supplier agreements with a number of us, and of course our valued distribution system – the travel agents. Just across APT and PONANT’s bookings alone, some $6 million of agents commissions are being jeopardised.
“We are in continual dialogue with the Federal and State/Territory Governments trying to find our way through to an acceptable solution. The industry provides about $60m of economic impact to the NT and Darwin economies in a normal year.”