In a week that saw P&O Australia cancel overseas cruising and replace them with local itineraries after September 17, a statement from the ship owners lobby group has revealed just how far talks with the Australian government have yet to go before foreign flagged vessels can sail Australian waters.

Last week, Cruise Passenger revealed that small ship owners waiting to sail a Kimberley season were being asked to hire Australian hospitality workers in order to get permission to put to sea in a region desperate for tourism dollars. Six lines want to sail the Kimberley, but only locally flagged and crewed Coral Expeditions is actually carrying passengers aboard three ships today.

APT’s Caledonian Sky, which carries 99 passengers and crew, has been given permission to sail after replacing foreign crew with 30 Australians. She will be carrying her first passengers on June 11. But Scenic has cancelled cruises by its highly-anticipated luxury adventure yacht Scenic Eclipse, and Silversea, Ponant and Aurora are still waiting.

Now, in a statement from Cruise Lines International Association Australasia, the owners indicate they won’t be able to sail if the Australian Border Force ruling on Aussie workers applies to them.

With the Australian wave season three months away and the turnaround to start up ships that have been at anchor for over a year set at 90 days, timing is tight. Most lines, however, remain cautiously optimistic they can still get sailings this year.

The owners’ negotiations with the government have been kept under wraps, with CLIA declining to reveal what they are suggesting by way of health protocols to keep passengers safe. The lines are pressing the government to hand down a ‘framework’ of protocols so states can consider a phased resumption.

The ruling on a portion of crews in the hospitality sector being Australian adds a new complex dimension to the negotiations. A vessel like Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas carries a crew of 1,500. If both Carnival’s three lines and Royal Caribbean were sailing, it would mean hundreds of sea trained hospitality workers would be required at a time when hotels and Australian resorts are desperate for staff and when foreign workers are still banned.

If the government insists on small ship operators like APT employing Australians but does not do the same with larger vessels, it makes a nonsense of the rationale for the ruling on COVID safety grounds. If they don’t, other tourism operators will use the cruise argument to press the case for opening borders to foreign workers.

The CLIA statement says: “Australia’s cruise suspension has an existing exemption for ships carrying under 100 passengers and crew, and it is these exempt vessels specifically that are subject to current limitations around international crew.

“This does not necessarily relate to future operations by larger ships and international cruise lines, and discussions on a wider return of cruise ships and their crew are continuing.

“A successful resumption of cruise operations will depend on having reliable levels of skilled and highly trained crew, and in a specialised environment it is necessary to recruit internationally to achieve this.

“Both CLIA and its cruise line members are closely engaged with governments to achieve a framework for resumption beginning initially with domestic sailings for Australian residents only, with extensive new health protocols in place. This includes discussions on an agreed and responsible quarantine pathway for international crew members.”

But Australian Border Force, asked specifically about larger ships, said:

·       On 03 March 2021 the Government announced the human biosecurity emergency period under the Biosecurity Act 2015 will be extended by three months for the operation of cruise ships in Australia. This includes:

o   extending to 17 June 2021, the current measures restricting the entry of cruise ships into Australian territory and entry at Australian ports; and

o   continuing the application of these restrictions to cruise ships capable of carrying 100 or more passengers.

o   The restrictions are inclusive of direct arrivals and Round Trip Cruises (RTC)

·       Policy around the entry of cruise ships and their crew will be made in conjunction with a decision to allow their entry to Australia and in consultation across government and with industry.