Nothing concentrates the mind of a cruise “tragic” as the news that an iconic cruise line like P&O Australia — their cruise line — is to be shut down. 

Devotees of the wonderful P&O Cruises Australia brand are doubtlessly currently navigating the familiar stages of grief — anger, denial, bargaining and, still to come, acceptance. 

Count me among the “tragics” but one who had the honour of working on the inside of Australia’s main cruise organisation and experiencing its value system, and who also enjoyed the product. 

News of P&O’s demise brought memories flooding back, mostly about people, that make it easier to understand what made this special cruise line tick. 

Thoughts immediately concentrated on an image from Pacific Dawn berthed at Port Vila in 2015 with passengers lining the top deck peering over the side. 

Ben, Chris and Kevin were rescued by Pacific Dawn
Ben, Chris and Kevin were rescued by Pacific Dawn

Pacific Dawn was the first ship back to Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam devastated the archipelago. It was still a disaster recovery zone so the passengers weren’t allowed to get off, but none uttered a word of complaint. 

Instead, they watched as humanitarian aid came pouring out of the ship onto the wharf before going to a special fundraising concert onboard, donating thousands of dollars to cyclone relief. 

Another memory, same ship, rescuing three shipwrecked sailors in a life raft in rough seas off New Caledonia. Once on dry land the trio sent a video showing their delight and relief as the big white P&O ship came over the horizon to rescue them. 

And the time P&O flew a group of its Ni Vanuatu crew to the Gold Coast to see the Vanuatu women’s beach volleyball team in action at the 2016 Commonwealth Games. The ladies won bronze, the first-ever team medal won by Vanuatu in an international competition. P&O has supported the team for years. 

David Jones, former P&O Australia worker

What P&O Australia was all about

So, what has P&O been all about in its contemporary incarnation in Australia cruising? It was always about the people and making cruise holidays affordable to the masses. The nearest equivalent is how the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made international air travel accessible to a huge new group of travellers.

P&O was the line that said in word and deed that cruising was for everyone, not just the holiday pastime of the well-to-do. 

Under Carnival Australia CEO Ann Sherry and later Sture Myrmell and Marguerite Fitzgerald, P&O sought out and won over the family market. 

As a family man, I’ve always been aware that family holidays are special events where parents can relax from the day-to-day working grind, and the kids can soak up memories to be cherished for a lifetime. 

It was always a pleasure to see the kids enjoying themselves often with three generations of one family travelling together. There might even have been four-generation families holidaying on the high seas. 

Churlish critics

Cruise Eden saves wedding

The churlish cruising critics, who wrote off cruise ships as floating RSL clubs at sea, missed the point. That’s exactly why P&O was so successful. Passengers including the multi-generation families felt right at home, just as they did at their local club. 

I’ve always thought the critics couldn’t understand P&O’s democratisation of cruising. The critics had probably never cruised, were unlikely to ever do so but liked to look down their noses at the people who did. Snobs!

P&O certainly went out of its way to offer passengers a good dollop of affordable luxury. When Pacific Explorer, Pacific Eden and Pacific Aria joined the fleet, P&O commissioned an interior design genius, Petra Ryberg, to update the look and feel. 

The results were magnificent. Affordable luxury looked like classy opulence thanks to Petra’s creativity. So glowing was the new look that while onboard Pacific Eden, I asked Sture Myrmell if P&O was going upmarket. Sture looked shocked. No way! P&O’s loyal mob were just getting the best. 

P&O was always approachable. When it was announced Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden were transferring from Holland America Line to P&O, a Sydney mum called the media line on a Saturday morning. Would P&O be interested in a coincidence that she had two daughters and they were named Aria and Eden? Of course — Aria and Eden became the ships’ junior godmothers. 

When Australians travel, they bring their egalitarian spirit with them and in the vast majority of cases they treat the crew with great respect taking an interest in their lives and families back home. The crew responded in kind to their warmth. 

Looking back on P&O’s more than 90 years of cruising from Australia, there’s no getting away from it. Erasing the brand in 2025 is going to leave a very big hole in the Australian cruise market. There is already talk of capacity plunging as a result. 

It’s no small thing to do away with the region’s foundation brand — the one that resonated most with everyday Australians wishing to enjoy their taste of affordable luxury. 

David Jones was Carnival Australia’s corporate communications manager from 2009 to 2022.