The APT Travel Group has claimed it has made a breakthrough in getting an agreement for its cruise ship Caledonian Sky to sail the Kimberley in June – the first foreign-flagged vessel to be permitted to operate in Australian waters.
The Bahamas-based vessel will sail with just 99 passengers and crew – placing it under the numbers cap set by Australia’s biosecurity laws, which has kept other fleets out of Australian waters since the pandemic struck in March last year.
APT is lucky. Five other lines are waiting for clearance, including APT rival Scenic with its luxury discovery yacht Eclipse, French luxury small-ship operator Ponant, Silversea and adventure line Aurora.
Tens of thousands of cruise fans in Australia are hoping the APT sailings will be a precursor to get their beloved big ships back in Australia waters. After all, we still boast the highest cruise penetration per capita of anywhere in the world, and in Singapore ships have been sailing for months without incident.
Almost all the lines offering Kimberley cruises have sold out. So much work is going on behind the scenes to try and salvage the season.
As the ban on international vessels enters its 15th month, many are battling hard to persuade the federal and state governments to allow a restart.
Ponant, which sails small adventure ships, has had to cancel four journeys on Le Lapérouse, which has been based in COVID-free Noumea since March last year. The line’s Asia Pacific chair Sarina Bratton described it as “extremely disappointing” – the more so since there was a tidal wave of support from loyal Ponant fans who had virtually booked out the ship’s itineraries.
Joel Katz, managing director of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) Australasia, believes there can still be a big-ship wave season at the end of 2021 – Australia usually starts cruising in September. He said: “I’m cautiously optimistic. I do believe there is goodwill.”
Ms Bratton is also convinced that the Kimberley sailings can be salvaged – though probably towards the second half of the May to September season.
The lack of success so far is certainly not for the want of trying. Almost every fortnight, five senior industry members – representatives from Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean, the Australian Cruise Association, CLIA and Ponant – are on a conference call with officials from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and officials from the departments of health, transport, agriculture, the Australian Border Force and Austrade.
The surprising line-up of departments is evidence of the complexity of the issues. In the words of Mr Katz, who leads the negotiations, there are “many moving parts”.
But the stumbling block is Australia’s top health body, the AHPCC, which is understandably “risk averse”, with the spectre of the Ruby Princess (often cited as the cause of numerous COVID cases and deaths) sometimes raised.
A lot has changed since that incident in March 2020, and most agree it could never happen again. The level of understanding of the pandemic, the sophisticated medical facilities on board many large vessels, vaccine roll-outs and health protocols all make cruising a much safer option. But getting that message across has been hard.
“We have been working with departments of transport, health and others on a draft framework for a staged resumption of cruise. The intention of this document is to provide the states and territories with guidance and autonomy for them to resume cruise activity at a level that they are comfortable with,” said Ms Bratton.
The working group’s draft framework involves a series of alternatives, from the present 100 passengers to potentially 300, then 1000 and then 1000 plus. The plan requires AHPCC approval, and each operator then needs to reach agreement with each of the states and territories.
These documents are highly complex. Ponant’s outbreak management plan, for instance, is 79 pages long.
Ms Bratton said some states are enthusiastic about a cruise return – but they need a federally endorsed plan so they can choose where and when they want to start.
Some Aboriginal communities of the Kimberley were angry enough to write to Canberra imploring the Government to restart the season. The traditional landowners stand to lose $1 million in fees.
Explore asked the federal Department of Health for its take on progress. Its media department told us the human biosecurity emergency period which “has been in place since 17 March 2020, was extended earlier this year by an additional three months until 17 June 2021.
“Under law these periods may last for up to three months. Further extensions are reviewed approximately four weeks prior to the completion of each period to ensure that the decision-making process is based on the latest epidemiology and expert medical advice. That review is done on the basis of advice from the AHPPC and the Australian Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly.
“The human biosecurity emergency declaration ensures the Government has the powers to take any necessary measures to prevent and control COVID-19 and protect the health of all Australians. These powers have been used on a limited basis on expert medical advice since the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Government continues to work with the cruising industry to explore options for the resumption of low-risk day and overnight domestic cruising in a COVID-safe manner.
“However, large overnight cruise vessels are still considered high-risk environments and therefore the Government could only support the resumption of large-scale and overnight and international cruising in Australian waters when the health advice indicated that it was safe to do so.”
Managing director of APT’s parent company Australian Pacific Holdings Chris Hall said: “Australians are keen to travel, and we have exceptional experiences ready and waiting for them to enjoy. The return to operating our touring and expedition holidays is a tremendous outcome for our guests, travel agency partners, staff and crew, the wider industry and all involved in delivering our programmes.”
The Caledonian Sky is excluded from the Federal Government’s ban on larger cruise ships, the company maintained, and updated COVID-safe policies have been developed with leading experts from around the world, including former World Health Organization physician Dr Ian Norton, and CLIA Australasia.
Mr Hall said: “We will operate the APT 2021 Kimberley season within Western Australia, travelling between Wyndham and Broome. Many of these are coupled with 4WD touring throughout the Kimberley staying in our exclusive lodges.”
APT will operate its Kimberley cruising season from June to September 2021 with high demand and very limited availability across the season.
Itineraries beyond the Kimberley, as well as 2022 Kimberley departure dates, are on sale, with some availability after October.
The move means APT will join Coral Expeditions as the only two lines sailing in Australian waters.