It's been the question on every cruiser's lips since the industry paused operations in March 2020 -- when will cruises start again in Australia?
And as the second anniversary of Australia's cruise ship ban rapidly approaches, and more and more lines push back their restart dates -- P&O Cruises Australia just announced that no ship will sail now before June -- there's a question mark over whether the 2022 season will even happen.
Royal Caribbean gave up hoping Australia's cruise ship ban would be lifted in October when it confirmed Ovation of the Seas 2021/22 season would be cancelled.
Carnival AU meanwhile also gave up waiting and redeployed the popular Carnival Spirit back to the U.S. (after almost 10 years Down Under), as well as Carnival Splendor, citing "uncertainty in Australia" as to when cruises will resume.
So the question is: When is the cruise industry re-opening? Read our update on the cruise ship ban to find out.
Will There Be a 2022 Cruise Season in Australia?
"We remain hopeful that we can salvage some of the upcoming winter season," said Joel Katz, managing director of industry body CLIA Australasia.
"With the long-lead times involved in getting the larger ships back into the market, most cruise lines have now cancelled through to end of May," he said. "But we do still have an opportunity to see expedition ships such as Ponant and Silversea join the two smaller ships already operating in Australia APT and Coral Expeditions for the winter Kimberley season."
David Jones of Carnival Australia is also hopeful some of the 2022 season can be salvaged.
He told Cruise Critic: "The Australian Government has a cruise ban in place that runs until February 17.
"We are naturally hoping it will be lifted to allow the momentum for restart to gather including state governments agreeing to reopen their ports to cruise ships."
Has There Been a Complete Cruise Ship Ban in Australia?
No. The cruise ship ban extends to large ships over 100 passengers only, and as Katz states, there has been an extremely limited resumption of small-ship, domestic cruising.
In fact, despite the ongoing extensions of the cruise ban, small ship, domestic cruising resumed as long ago as November 2020, with Coral Discoverer operating on the Great Barrier Reef.
In December, however, the Australian government extended the cruise ship ban on foreign-flagged cruise ships operating in Australian waters until February 17, 2022.
"There is talk about an imminent announcement that international tourism will restart before Easter, so we are advocating for the ban on international cruise ships to be lifted at the same time," Katz said.
But there are no guarantees, and no indication from federal government -- which controls international borders -- that this will happen.
Why Is Australia So Cautious When it Comes to Cruising?
Cast your mind back to Ruby Princess and the headlines around that ship -- and the erroneous assumption that it supposedly brought COVID-19 into the country -- and you will get some idea of the attitudes from authorities and the non-cruising public in Australia when it comes to cruising.
"The Australian governments have taken a very conservative approach to managing the pandemic," Katz said.
"Initially this was an elimination/suppression strategy, and involved restricting any activities that were perceived as high risk -- the large number of infections and deaths associated with cruise in the early days of the pandemic are still regularly referred to in the media, and health authorities have been blamed.
"This has resulted in an extremely risk-averse approach to cruise restart by those same health authorities, and politicians."
The challenge over the past 18 months has been that the states want the federal government to lift the ban before they will commit to the health protocols to underpin the resumption. the federal government wants a state to take the lead. And so the cruise industry is caught in the middle.
"CLIA and our cruise lines had been working hard to break the deadlock, and towards the end of 2021 we were confident that we are making progress and the political intent was there to support ending the ban."
Omicron put paid to that: "Cruise was once again put on the back burner, and we’ve had to restart the process," Katz said.
How Do People Feel About Cruising in Australia?
Prior to COVID-19, 1.2 million Australians cruised, and the country had the highest market penetration (the most people cruising as a percentage of the population) of any established cruise market, accounting for five percent of global cruising.
"Consumer sentiment is almost back to pre-COVID levels, and cruise passengers are telling us that they are happy to cruise again, and to comply with the industry's robust health protocols if it means they can get back to sea," Katz said.
This is backed up by the results of an email campaign ReadySetSail CLIA ran last year which generated more than 50,000 emails sent to various MPs in a bid to get them to put pressure on central government to reverse the cruise ban, but to no avail.
As well as a more recent survey carried out by Cruise Critic in Australia, the results of which showed 84 percent of respondents would book a future cruise. Of those, 47 percent are already looking to book a future cruise and 61 percent are looking to sail within the next 12 months.
As long as the ban remains in place, an estimated AU$10 billion has been lost to the economy and 18,000 cruise-reliant jobs hang in the balance CLIA estimates.
What Does the Future Hold for Cruise Down Under?
Katz is confident that cruising can get back to pre-pandemic levels within a few years:
"Anecdotally, we understand future booking pace is strong," he said. "We expect that once cruise lines have the confidence that ships will be able to return to Australia, within a few years we'll be back to pre-COVID levels."
Carnival's Jones adds: "Guests remain keen to cruise again and are looking forward to a positive outcome."
No one can put a fixed date on when cruising will restart in Australia but there is hope that at least part of the 2022 season will be salvaged.