Cruise ships returned to Sydney today in a stunning and symbolic display from one of Australia’s most popular tourism sectors.

Just one day after the government’s two-year ban on foreign-flagged vessels expired, a flotilla of small boats and three tugs with water cannon accompanied P&O’s Pacific Explorer as she paraded for an hour down the harbour and tied up at the Overseas Passenger Terminal.

It was a major gesture of confidence from an industry which once attracted 1.6 million Australians a year, created 18,000 jobs and more than $5 billion in annual revenues.

Two years ago, P&O’s owner Carnival Australia was forced to move its ships overseas by a government order issued at the heigh of the pandemic. The vessels left the harbour accompanied by police boats.

Today, government ministers and a host of travel agents and passengers were at the quayside to welcome the ships back.

Transport Minister David Elliott said:  “The day has finally arrived for Sydney Harbour to once again reclaim its rightful place as the epicentre of local and international cruising in Australia.”

New Carnival Australia president Marguerite Fitzgerald said emotions were running high among her staff and the crew aboard Explorer as they came home.

“It was always going to be an emotional homecoming for Pacific Explorer and her crew,” she told an invited group aboard a Sydney party boat hired to go out and see the vessel in. “Pacific Explorer coming through Sydney Heads after two long years was a magic moment and I am proud to say there was hardly a dry eye among our suppliers, guests and staff.”

In the audience were some of those who had fought so hard to bring cruise back to Australia: Joel Katz, MD of Cruise Lines International Association, Sandy Olsen and David Jones of Carnival Australia’s corporate communications team, Paul Nicolaou, executive director of Business Sydney, Philip Holliday, CEO of NSW Ports and agents like Dan Russell of Clean Cruising.

Explorer will spend some days at White Bay receiving crew and supplies before taking an “activation” trip out to sea to test her services and procedures on May 27 before her first journey on May 31 to Brisbane, where a new cruise centre has been waiting for more than a year to greet its first ship.

Top suites are sold for the journey and interest has been strong, according to travel agents.

Today’s harbour entrance signals the start of a new cruising era for Australians.

The NSW government has agreed new health protocols with cruise lines including:

  • All passengers over the age of 12 and crew will need to be fully vaccinated to board domestic and international cruises
  • All passengers and crew will be required to have a negative COVID test before embarking and wear masks at embarkation and disembarkation;
  • A Covid safe plan will be developed for shore excursions, which will consider the specific needs of local communities
  • Covid safe plans have been developed for disembarkation of any COVID positive cases and close contacts;
  • Cruise operators will provide information to travellers about covid safe practices including social-distancing, enhanced cleaning, and the availability of on board Covid-19 testing.

Guests will be expected to test before arrival at the cruise terminal and have a choice: a PCR test 72 hours before or a RAT test on the day of departure.

Before the pandemic, the cruise industry contributed an estimated $3.3 billion in total expenditure and 11,000 jobs to the NSW economy alone.

Ms Fitzgerald said there would be changes, as the world is different after two years.  These changes would affect many areas from food to activities.  “You’ll see new product, entertainment we’re trialling – there are things we need to make sure are much more in line with where people are”.

Princess is likely to be next in line to return in May. Royal Caribbean is unlikely to be back in Australian waters until October.