The minister in charge of Australia’s tourism portfolio has made the most encouraging remarks in a year about the return of cruise ships to Australian waters, sparking a wave of optimism among operators.

Speaking with Channel Nine’s Today Show host Karl Stefanovic, Dan Tehan was asked about the number of special deals available for cruising in Australia. He said: “There are welcome signs, and yes, we’re seeing rebounding when it comes to cruising, and also domestic tourism.”

Host Stan Stefanovic asked the minister: “In relation to cruising, the Ruby Princess saga led to a major heartbreak here… should Aussies feel safe taking up these offers now?”

The minister replied: “The cruise industry has done a lot of work to make sure that cruising now is COVID safe. They’ve put protocols in place, so people should be confident to be able to go and book cruises.

“They also should be confident to be able to book, you know, wonderful vacations right across this nation, because we’ve got so many wonderful places to see – whether you’re doing it as part of a cruise around our coastline, or going to visit just the wonderful places right across the nation.”

Cruise Passenger can reveal talks are underway with Health Department officials for the resumption of small ships and day or overnight cruising as a way to restart the industry.  But large ship cruising is still some time off.

A spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt issued a statement saying:

“The advice on cruise restrictions is regularly reviewed by the Australia Government and Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and will be refined to respond to changes in the global and domestic situation as appropriate.

“The Australian Government, including the Department of Health, is considering the parameters around any future resumption of cruise operations in Australia and is consulting with the AHPPC, other national health committees and the cruise industry during these considerations.

“Options being considered include a staged approach to cruise resumption which would take into account the Australian COVID-19 epidemiological situation and be consistent with the broader relaxation of COVID-19 travel restrictions, both domestic and international.

“At this time, there has been no date set for the resumption of either larger domestic or international cruises.

“Day cruises and smaller domestic cruises on ships with fewer than 100 passenger berths are permitted under the current national cruise ship ban, subject to state and territory requirements and restrictions.

“The decision by the Health Minister to implement and extend the current ban on cruise ships to 17 March 2021 was based on advice from the AHPPC. At that time, the AHPPC considered cruise ships continued to pose a high risk of transmission for COVID-19 in the current global and domestic situation. The national cruise ship ban can be amended at any time.

“Above all, the Government will need to be assured that cruise ships can operate in a COVID-safe way and that the risk of transmission is acceptably low before cruise operations will be permitted in Australian waters.”

Royal Caribbean said in a statement: “Royal Caribbean continues to work with CLIA and our industry colleagues to engage with Federal and State Governments to help them to understand the changes developed for the cruise industry’s healthy return to service, and to satisfy the relevant authorities and – most importantly – our guests, that we’ll operate in a COVID-safe way.

 “These changes have been grounded in science and guided by our Healthy Sail Panel experts, and are already operating in Singapore with Quantum of the Seas.

“We’ll continue to engage constructively with relevant governments and officials and to work with local communities and the tourism industry, including in Far North Queensland.”

Mr Stefanovic asked if the tourism minister would be going on a cruise?

I’ve never been on a cruise and I think it’s something that I’ll explore doing once I finish this job. But, at the moment I’m sort of, it’s a bit hard to book a cruise with any certainty for me, because you’re never quite sure what you’ll be doing one day to the next.”

The cruise industry is on tenterhooks – cruise lines like Ponant, APT and Silversea are keen to sail in the Kimberley this year, and have had good response to itineraries there.

But at present, Health Minister Greg Hunt has imposed a ban on internationally flagged vessels over 100 passengers until March 17.