The Federal Government has announced the almost two-year ban on foreign flagged cruise ships will be extended until February 17 – in another blow to the local cruise industry and thousands of family holidays. Health Minister Greg Hunt made the announcement tonight, citing the new virus variant Omicron.

“The extension of these arrangements made by the Governor-General was informed by specialist medical and epidemiological advice provided by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer,” said the minister’s statement.

“Continuation of these arrangement will allow the important measures currently in place to continue as the Government continues to reopen Australia and act decisively to respond to the emergence of the Omicron variant.”

But Mr Hunt did offer a glimmer of hope, adding: “The Government continues to work constructively with the cruise ship industry, with whom we remain actively engaged alongside state and territory governments to enable a phased resumption of cruising in Australia on the basis of medical advice. As part of this work, the Government will continually review, on a monthly basis, whether the current restrictions on cruise ships can be safely lifted or amended.

“The measures in place under the Biosecurity Act 2015 can be repealed or amended at any time prior to the end of the human biosecurity emergency period and it will be continuously reviewed as a priority.”

The cruise industry’s body, Cruise Lines International Association Australasia (CLIA), which has been campaigning for the return of cruise, immediately put out a statement outlining the devastating effects of the move.  CLIA has been working for months to try and get the ban lifted.

CLIA Managing Director Australasia Joel Katz said Australia was the only major cruise market in the world without an agreed plan to resume cruising, which is ordinarily worth more than $5 billion a year to the Australian economy.

“The suspension of cruising has been devastating for the 18,000 Australians who depend on cruise tourism, including travel agents, tour operators, food and produce providers, entertainers, port workers and many other industry suppliers,” Mr Katz said. “In other countries close to five million people have already sailed successfully under the cruise industry’s extensive new health protocols. We need federal and state governments to use the coming weeks for genuine discussions with the cruise industry so we can plan a similar revival in Australia.”

Mr Katz said the extension of Australia’s cruise ban was a further disappointment for thousands of cruise fans who faced uncertainty around their future holiday plans.

“Cruising has changed enormously in response to the pandemic and the work our industry has done with medical experts internationally has resulted in health protocols that are successful in mitigating the risks of Covid-19,” Mr Katz said. “With vaccination rates increasing and borders opening, we need agreement on the way forward throughout Australia so there can be a careful revival of cruise tourism in communities around the country.”

Mr Katz said it would take several months of preparations before cruise ships could return to Australian waters.

“Cruising involves long lead-times, so it is essential that the industry can work closely with all governments and health authorities to establish detailed operational plans ahead of resumption,” Mr Katz said.

The move comes after talks with NSW government officials reached an impasse  thanks to Omicron.

The earliest a ship is likely to sail on Australian waters now is May – which is, of course, on the verge of winter.

It is a sorry state of affairs considering Australia once held the reputation of the country with the highest penetration of cruise in the word at around five percent, and is now the last country to revive holidays on the water.

Hundreds of family holidays, jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue rest on a date being set.

Cruise Passenger was made aware that wheels were well in motion on talks last month, with a February 1 return date touted, before talks were put on the backburner as news of Omicron spread across the world.

The news surprised officials involved in the talks.

A spokesperson for the Premier’s office told Cruise Passenger earlier today: “State and territory jurisdictions are working together to develop nationally consistent protocols for the re-commencement of cruising. Nationally consistent protocols will ensure that all government and industry are aware of their roles and responsibilities when operating cruises in this new environment.”

There has been confusion on how cruising may operate if it were to return in one or only a few states before the nation as a whole, but the DPC spokesperson assured NSW is working with all other states on how to minimise risk and prepare a response to outbreaks.

The Biosecurity Act has been renewed three times, twice on the day of expiry and once a week before.

There were hopes that the Act may only be renewed by a month, rather than three. Perhaps the two month ban instead of three suggests attitudes to cruising may be softening in Canberra.

Cruise continues to face scrutiny across the world, with commentators questioning the safety of cruise ships after a 17-case outbreak on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship in New Orleans.

Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement: “We will never compromise on health and safety and we will, of course, continue to take all appropriate action to ensure everyone’s well-being and to protect public health.”

There were 3200 people aboard the ship, meaning less than 1% of those on board contracted the virus from the outbreak.

More than 3 million people have sailed on cruise ships since the pandemic. The American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have reported just 1,359 cases between June 26 and October 21, the largest outbreak being 105 cases.

On October 21, the USA reported 81,946 new cases across the country.

The lines with the most at stake are Carnival Australia’s Princess, P&O and Carnival Cruises – P&O, for instance, had cruises selling for March, 2022.

It takes approximately 90 days to turn around a ship.

P&O was still listing cruises in March on Friday and today announced Tasmania’s country-rock duo The Wolfe Brothers will be the headline act on one of the cruise line’s popular Country Music Festival at Sea cruises in 2022.

Carnival Cruises have moved its first sail dates to April 8 for Carnival Splendor and April 120 for Carnival Spirit.