The cruise industry was in shock last night after an expected season of itineraries from New Zealand by luxury expedition line Ponant was blocked at the last minute.

The New Zealand Immigration Service claims 61 of the Le Laperouse’s  90 crew don’t have visas because they are not “essential”, and has said the ship cannot enter New Zealand waters.

She was reportedly sailing to Noumea last night after circling outside New Zealand waters as Ponant executives held talks with New Zealand government officials to try and find a solution.

In a message from Ponant’s Asia Pacific chair Sarina Bratton, she revealed the company was looking to employ New Zealanders to add to the 14 already on board in a bid to meet the Immigration Department’s requirements.

“We have informed INZ that we will try to identify some local NZ citizens who could perform some hotel department roles onboard that we have identified which would not (by exception) have operational safety responsibility within their role.

“They would however require to have the appropriate STCW safety certification. These positions would be in addition to the 14 NZ residents who have already been contracted for the NZ season – naturalists, musicians and a nurse.

“We remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement with INZ to allow our ship to deliver the expedition experiences that 700 Kiwis have purchased via their NZ travel agents.

“Our economic contribution to the NZ economy is significant and there are many small businesses relying on this to be realised, to reduce job losses and provide hope for the future.”
The cruise industry had been hoping the sailings would add to the growing case for a cruise resumption currently being made by successful voyages operating out of Singapore.

According to the New Zealand immigration minister, Le Laperouse has been “hovering” outside New Zealand waters after sailing for New Zealand despite 61 visa applications being turned down on January 22.

A further application has also been declined.

Ms Bratton maintained the  New Zealand health authorities had cleared the COVID safety plans on the ship and were due to inspect the ship at anchor in Auckland Harbour today.

“The Ministry of Health have not had issue with our extensive covid plans and were scheduled to visit the ship at anchor in Auckland Harbour today to do PCR testing of all the crew.
“Ponant has operated 60 expeditions in numerous jurisdictions around the world during the 2020 covid period. Our robust covid-safe protocols have been well tested and proven. Our crew have been tested five times over the past 27 days and have been in isolation over this period. The ship and her crew are covid-free.
“Our NZ port agent is well accustomed to managing all crew visa requirements and commenced the process after our MoH Economic Exemption application was approved mid December. Our final crew manifest was sent to the port agent for visa processing on January 8.
“We are not able to confirm the full crew manifest to our port agent until after our company’s extensive testing and isolation protocols are finalised. Clearly all crew need to receive multiple negative test results otherwise they are disembarked before the vessel would undertake the 3 week voyage to NZ.
“Visas were approved by INZ for our technical deck and engine crew, but not for our hotel
Department crew. This information was advised after the ship had travelled over 3600 nautical miles (18 days) to NZ.
“There are strict safety certificates required for all crew working on ships, particularly expedition ships like ours that sail in extreme and remote areas – NZ sub-antarctic islands, Chatham, Bounty, Antipodes islands as an example.”

According to tour operators who claim to have invested $1 million in bringing the ship to New Zealand, Le Laperouse’s crew were given prior approval by the Ministry of Health to enter New Zealand.

But the Immigration Minister said if the ship came to New Zealand, 61 people would either be quarantined on the ship until they were sent home or “detained”. You can view his press conference here:

According to the operators, who have charted the ship from Ponant, the 61 crew members were declined visas  because they were not considered “essential”. They included hairdressers, bartenders and masseuses.

The operator, who declined to be named, told The New Zealand Herald: “There is a lack of understanding that staff working on the ship have multiple roles, they may have to make the beds but the same person may also be a singer and a bartender,” the man said.

“To say locals can do the job – that’s absolute bullshit.”

The paper quoted Helen Wilkins from Queenstown, who booked a two-week cruise departing Auckland on February 8 for the Sub-Antarctic Islands, as saying:

“Obviously I am very concerned to hear on the news today that the ship is not permitted to enter NZ waters … all very disconcerting.”

Le Laperouse was to sail seven voyages and 700 passengers were expected on board.

The New Zealand Cruise Association said it was “simply bewildered”.

According to the association, the line was  granted an exemption last December to carry a maximum of 100 passengers.

“NZCA believes that all the ship’s crew are essential to its operation and they cannot be replaced by New Zealanders in such a short time.”

The ship had followed procedure and did everything that was requested by the Government in order to offer safe domestic cruising in New Zealand.

“To comply with Covid-19 requirements to isolate crew, the ship has been slow steaming from its last port, testing everyone on board regularly,” the association said.

Le Laperouse was due in Auckland for fuelling this weekend, maintenance work and New Zealand Covid-19 testing. Her first itinerary was due to leave on Febuary 8.

The Immigration Minister said the line how had three options:

  • Turn back
  • Come in to port and remove the 61 crew who had no visas
  • come in to port, refuel and depart immediately