Foreign cruise ships are currently banned in Australian waters, leaving the peak summer cruise season under a cloud.
Iconic Sydney Harbour usually resembles a parking lot at this time of year as some of the world’s big cruise ships jostle for space, signalling the start of the summer cruise season in the southern hemisphere.
This year though, those floating cities – some as large as multi-storey buildings – are noticeable by their absence.
Cruise ships were linked to hundreds of cases of coronavirus across Australia earlier this year, and are currently banned in Australian waters until at least December 17.
And although the big operators like P&O, Princess Cruises (owned by Carnival), Royal Caribbean and its sister brand Celebrity Cruises have already started taking bookings for early 2021, there are huge doubts about whether they’ll actually be allowed to set sail.
But many industry experts suggest it’s almost certain the Australian Government will extend the ban on foreign cruise ships once more, possibly until March, as it strives to keep coronavirus under control.
It’s possible large foreign cruise ships won’t be allowed to operate in Australian waters until mid-2021 at the very earliest, with the country’s borders closed for the foreseeable future.
Only essential and compassionate travel is permitted, with people arriving into Australia required to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days.
Australia is the world’s fifth-largest cruising nation, with 1.35 million passengers in 2018. In 2007, the number was just 250,000.
And while the industry employs 20,000 people and contributes around $5.2 billion to the Australian economy, cruise ships are considered public enemy number one given the coronovirus pandemic.
The Ruby Princess, operated by Princess Cruises, was responsible for one of Australia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks earlier this year.
Cruise travel will be one of the last industries reactivated in Australia.
About 600 infections were traced to the ship which was allowed to dock in Sydney in March, with 2,700 passengers disembarking.
By April 3, the ship was estimated to be responsible for 10 per cent of Australia’s COVID-19 cases, including seven of the country’s 25 deaths.
It’s no wonder the Australian Government, like Canada and the Cayman Islands, is reluctant to give cruise ships the green light too soon. Some jurisdictions don’t want to see cruise ships until 2022.
Australia’s tourism minister, Simon Birmingham, said recently: “Cruise travel, you would expect to be sitting right towards the end, if not the very last thing, that is reactivated again, given the difficulties Australia has faced with the cruise sector.”
Despite the grim outlook for the cruising industry, and the high level of uncertainty about cruise schedules, bookings for 2021 suggest many Australians have no qualms about cruising again soon.
The first Royal Caribbean cruises planned for 2021 are a nine-night cruise to New Zealand from Sydney on Ovation of the Seas, and an 11-night South Pacific cruise leaving Brisbane on Radiance of the Seas, both scheduled to depart on January 4.
Princess Cruises is also advertising a 13-day cruise from Melbourne to New Zealand on the Sapphire Princess (above), listed for departure for December 20. But it hinges on the government ban being lifted on December 17.
While booking a cruise at this time might seem risky, there is a safety net: most cruise lines have introduced flexible bookings, with some conditions.
That allows passengers to cancel without penalty and get a full refund, or receive a credit for a future cruise with bonus value, should the bans be extended.
Travellers who book with Royal Caribbean can take also advantage of the ‘Cruise with Confidence’ Offer, which has three options for compensation.
Whether the Australian cruise season actually gets the all clear remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure though, a holiday on the high seas will look drastically different than it used to.
The industry is working on a range of new health protocols to convince governments to allow them to resume sailing sooner rather than later.
Those measures include temperature testing for both passengers and staff, a 50 per cent reduction in the number of passengers allowed onboard, and a range of social distancing measures.
© 2020 BERNARD O’RIORDAN (TRAVEL INSTINCT). ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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