As Australia prepares to open its borders, cruise fans are pinning their hopes on a local restart in early February 2022 as both state and federal government officials focus first on local and international tourism first.

Federal and state leaders are expected to announce tentative timelines for international travel today.  And cruise industry leaders believe there is still hope that, if the community reaches its vaccination targets, there will be ships sailing out of Sydney early in 2022.

But they concede that, despite the pleas of over 40,000 passengers and agents and meetings through the past six months, there has been little or no progress towards producing a plan to bring back foreign-flagged vessels in 2021. And some experts believe we’ll be sailing overseas before we sail out of Sydney.

“We are going through a difficult and tough time as the government is not interested to restart cruising until 80 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated,” said Sarina Bratton, Asia Pacific chair of luxury small ship line Ponant at the launch of a video, Beyond the Polar Circle, hosted by TV veteran and Ponant ambassador Andrew Daddo last week.

“We have put every COVID-safety protocol on board our ships that cover every base,” she said. But after meeting health authority officials, she revealed cruise is not “high priority” on the pathway to reopen Australian borders.

Ponant has based Le Laperouse and Le Soleal in Noumea awaiting a green light from Australia, and the line is paying a high price for the uncertainty.

Ponant Le Laperouse christening

Ponant is not alone.

Cruise lines are desperately seeking a start to productive talks on a pathway for the return of local itineraries before the Christmas break. Those close to the negotiations believe New South Wales and Queensland are the key states in a bid to get progress before the Christmas break – with New South Wales most likely to be the first to help.

Politicians on all sides have signalled a willingness to put cruise on the agenda once full vaccination rates are at 80 per cent and outbreaks are under control.

But if this fails and the decision spills into the new year, it could be October, 2022 before Australia’s sees the big-ship fleet back in local waters.

Cruise executives say the arguments for a cruise resumption have been well received by political leaders. But there is a hurdle that must be overcome: a vote by Australian’s Health Protection Principal Committee, which comprises the country’s chief health officers and their federal counterparts.

This would mean a leader like NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant would need to champion the cause for a start. The hope is that New South Wales can make the vaccination target by mid-October, and allow for talks in mid-November.

With two cruise terminals, NSW is the cruise capital of Australia. The state would need to apply for an exemption to allow certain ships to enter NSW waters.

NSW Health declined to comment when Cruise Passenger approached them this week.

The timing is critical, given it takes 60-90 days to turn around a ship. “We need to have some direction before the December 17 border BioSecurity determination is amended,” explained one executive. Without that, the summer season will be over and most lines won’t return until October, 2022.

And the frustration is that, despite the enormous amount of scientific evidence the cruise industry has assembled on how new health protocols have made cruise safer than almost any other holiday, it has been hard to get a hearing amid the noise of a pandemic.

Carnival Australia has already shifted its sailings into 2022.  Royal Caribbean still has Ovation of the Seas scheduled to sail out of Sydney during December.