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Expedition cruising in the Kimberley could be the first to kick start the industry as domestic travel restrictions lift in early June, Sarina Bratton, chairman of French luxury cruise company Ponant told Cruise Passenger in an exclusive interview.

Ms Bratton, a veteran of the cruise industry and the only cruise representative on the Tourism Restart Taskforce, was speaking after the group released a timeframe mapping out the reopening of domestic tourism in June, and a proposed full restart in July.

“There is strong recognition within the Taskforce that expedition operations have a low risk profile and an ability to boost and disperse economic benefit to remote areas of Australia.

“We think all expedition operators who have existing Kimberley programs would be encouraged to operate. This is obviously dependent on State and Territory border constraints,” she said.

Ponant which has an extensive season of 12 Kimberley departures this year and 22 in 2021, is “well placed to add benefit to our Tourism Restart efforts,” given the company’s “proven track record in showcasing this magnificent country of ours.”

Regarding the future of cruising in Australia in 2020 and 2021, she said: “There is a rapidly increasing demand for exploring remote and regional areas of the world onboard small expedition ships.

“Australia is the expedition operator’s ‘nirvana.’ With a fleet of 12 small, expedition ships, Ponant sees an exciting future showcasing Australia.”

Le Laperouse in the Kimberley by Nick Rains

John Hart, executive chairman of Australian Chamber-Tourism and a member of the Taskforce, said small expedition cruises of between 20 and 150 passengers have a lower risk profile than a big ship operator.

“It’s basically a clear numbers game and you’re not going to be able to infect large numbers of people in that sort of environment. You’re getting 100 or so guests on board that are pretty well spaced and the operators are committed to having all sorts of COVID-safe practices in place,” Mr Hart told Cruise Weekly.

Meanwhile Carnival Australia president Sture Myrmell told Cruise Passenger there is still a way to go before larger lines can get back to offering itineraries.

“It is important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves in relation to the resumption of cruising in this region. The Australian Government’s pause on cruising has recently been extended to September 17.

“It is gratifying that Australia and New Zealand have done particularly well in international terms in the way they have addressed COVID-19 and people are seeing more and more of their freedoms return.

He continued: ” Developments such as the so-called Trans Tasman Bubble are encouraging but we also acknowledge fully that the resumption of cruising is not straightforward.

“It involves a complex pathway in which governments, medical science, public health experts and cruise destination communities will play a part. Fundamental to all of this however is that society will be ready to cruise again and when that happens we will as always comply with the conditions necessary for cruising to return as a safe holiday option.”

Proposed Tourism Timetable

Here is Ms Bratton’s Q&A with Cruise Passenger.

Q: Can you confirm that the Tourism Restart Taskforce has decided domestic cruises that don’t leave Australian waters could begin next month?

B: Firstly, allow me to clarify that the Tourism Restart Taskforce has proposed a timetable for Tourism Restart to help guide advocacy for a more certain timetable for tourism restart.  The timetable reflects what industry feels are realistic restart targets for governments and health authorities to consider, subject to what happens with any further issues with COVID-19.  The timetable does not reflect any agreed position with Government.

No specific operators were discussed. There is strong recognition within the Taskforce that Expedition operations have a low risk profile and an ability to boost and disperse economic benefit to remote areas of Australia.

Q: Is it correct that a limit was considered of between 20 and 150 guests?

B: No specific size was discussed but rather we are working on a framework, based on the COVID Safe Guiding Principles, to demonstrate the ability to operate on the basis of risk mitigation practices being in place, rather than caps on the number of passengers.

 Q: How would you see the opportunity for the cruise industry here?  Would those established operators only (Coral Expeditions, True North, APT) be able to benefit, or could operators like PONANT take part with some rules and guidelines?

B: We think all the Expedition operators who have existing Kimberley programs would be encouraged to operate. This is obviously dependent on State and Territory border constraints.

Q: We’re any discussions held about P&O as a line which lays claim to being an Australian operator?

B: The discussion was around small, boutique, expedition operations.

Q: Was there discussion about larger lines like Royal Caribbean, which currently intends to restart in October? Did the Taskforce consider any timeline for them?

B: The Taskforce would like to see every sector of the Tourism industry phased in, in a manageable and controlled way over the next 12 months. Each sector of the industry is engaging/needs to engage with State/Territory/Federal departments to obtain confidence and approvals on the introduction of COVID-Safe operations. Timelines for the Cruise Industry are linked to the Federal Government’s appetite and confidence in the sector’s social distancing measures and health protocols.

Q: Queensland’s new Luggage Point facility is opening in October – did the Taskforce consider this timetable?  And if not, how do you see this being considered?

B: If the current ban on cruise ships is lifted after September 17, I imagine Luggage Point will excitedly welcome a number of operators soon thereafter.

 Q: Ponant as a small ship operator would seem perfectly placed for the suggestions about local cruises first, particularly on Kimberley itineraries.  Are there plans for PONANT to take part in local itineraries and how will this eventuate?

B: We had an extensive season of 12 Kimberley departures in 2020, growing to 22 departures in 2021. We have planned expeditions in other areas of Australia as well and consider our proven track record in showcasing this magnificent country of ours, is well placed to add benefit to our Tourism Restart efforts.

Q: Finally, how do you see cruising so future in 2020 and 2021 in Australia?

B: Adversity often presents unique opportunity to test and trial new concepts. Flexibility and swift response allows the proven opportunity to be transformed into long term prosperity. There is a rapidly increasing demand for exploring remote and regional areas of the world onboard small expedition ships. Australia is the Expedition Operator’s “nirvana”. With a fleet of 12 small, expedition ships, PONANT sees an exciting future showcasing Australia.

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