The Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants it. So does Health Minister Greg Hunt. And the Premier of NSW Domenic Perrottet is behind it too. So it won’t be long before we see cruise ships back in Sydney harbour again after a 20-month gap.
Most are predicting March, thanks to the 60-90 day turnaround time needed to restart and crew a ship. But the intriguing question is: who will be first to dock at the Overseas Passenger Terminal?
Carnival Australia wasn’t prepared to speculate. P&O still have ships listed for sailing in February. But the Pacific Explorer is in Cyprus and new vessel Pacific Adventure is in Greece.
Carnival Spirit and Carnival Splendor are in the Persian Gulf. Princess isn’t sailing until mid-March.
It’s suggested that Norwegian could sail in March, though the line wouldn’t confirm that this. Royal Caribbean has already cancelled Ovation of the Seas and won’t be returning until the wave season next October. Silversea scratched its proposed sailings this week. And Ponant, which has been a leader in trying to get back to cruising in Australia, has two ships standing by in Noumea.
But all of this may be academic – at least for the time being. NSW Health has so far refused to clear foreign flagged ships for cruising and is showing no signs of changing its mind as the December 17 deadline for renewal of the cruise ship ban looms.
Which raises the question: could another state beat NSW to the punch?
Dan Russell, general manager of Brisbane-based operator Clean Cruising, was quoted in The Australian this week as saying the states – especially Queensland, which boasts a new cruise terminal in Brisbane – should be leading the local resumption.
“We need state premiers to have the gumption to get on with it. At this point it’s not about the health advice, it’s a completely political decision … It is simply costing too many jobs,” he said.
A spokesman for the Queensland government said it was working to ensure the return of cruises to the Sunshine State, and is waiting on biosecurity moves by Canberra.
All the speculation came after Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed he is considering removing the ban on foreign-flagged ships and allowing cruise ships to be “back on before Christmas.”
Mr Hunt said: “I expect to be able to make a decision on cruise ships in the coming weeks once we’ve got the medical information, but it will require at least one state or territory to partner on that.”
And that is the stumbling block.
While “positive” talks were held with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, it is understood his officials, bruised after being blamed for the Ruby Princess debacle, are standing firm and refusing to change their stance of no cruising.
And that means even if a decision is made in December that green lights a cruise restart, it will take up to three months to recruit a new crew and fire up a cruise ship’s systems.
Cruise Lines International Association managing director Joel Katz said: “The recent comments we’ve heard from governments are very encouraging and we’re looking forward to having further discussions about cruising’s resumption.
“It’s important to remember that although the Federal government is considering lifting the cruise ban, it will still be necessary to establish detailed plans with state governments before cruising can resume.”
Mr Katz says that even if the cruise ban isn’t extended, there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done. The question is, who’s going to do it?
NSW Premier Mr Perrottet said: “The cruise industry is a very important segment of the travel market and we look forward to the great harbour in the world being to welcome ships from around the world once again when it is safe to do so.”
He also added that in order to return cruising will “need to meet a range of health and safety criteria and also be approved by the Commonwealth.”
In terms of who could be arriving on our shores first, Mr Katz says the industry still needs the states to offer a stronger show of faith in cruising.
“This will come down to the discussions we need to progress with the states and the individual operating plans that cruise lines will seek approval for. While we can’t know at this stage who might be sailing or exactly when, the cruise lines with a regular presence in Australasia will no doubt be among those who seek approvals.
“Many other lines that would ordinarily visit Australia regularly or operate seasonal deployments are also monitoring developments in this region with a view to returning when they are able to.”
The business community is now more active than ever in encouraging a cruise return.
“With cruises resuming responsibly in other parts of the world, our own industry remains anchored,” Andrew McKellar, Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said.
“For our cruise industry to recommence operations they need a firm commitment and timetable to resume, indications are not enough. We cannot expect the cruise industry to set sail again with so much uncertainty.
“Restarting the industry is not as simple as the Federal Government just lifting the ban. A restart to the cruise industry takes months of planning with staffing, catering and ship storage all needing to be considered.
“The Federal Government must provide a clear timetable for ending the Biosecurity Determinations so that cruises can resume. The COVID safe measures required for cruise ships to operate must also be outlined.
“Further, we need state and territory governments to commit to accepting cruise ship arrivals.”
And in ports like Eden, which has invested heavily in infrastructure to support the cruise industry, there is concern.
Eden Tourism board vice-chair Lana Wills told the Eden Magnet the board was not expecting to be notified of anything sooner than mid-December.
“I think the decisions are around whether it’s worth mobilising ships for a short season or if they just hold off until 2022/23,” Ms Wills said
“A decision really does have to be made soon, as you can’t get on a cruise ship even domestically at the moment.
“Then we can make some decisions around preparing for when the ships return. There’s a very strong cruise community of people who love holidaying in that way and I imagine they’ll be very happy,” Ms Wills said.