23 Sep 2020

Cruise ship company wants to offer 'bubble' trips around NZ

From Checkpoint, 6:03 pm on 23 September 2020

While travel has been clipped with the borders closed for the foreseeable future, there may be some hope on the horizon.

Ponant Yacht Cruises and Expeditions wants to operate 'bubble expeditions' offering New Zealanders the chance to cruise the country and perhaps Australia in the future.

The boutique luxury cruise company, which is already operating in parts of Europe and Tahiti wants an exemption to offer cruises over summer. 

Sarina Bratton told Checkpoint her company would love to bring two ships to New Zealand waters for the December to March season using one or two quarantine options.

"One is either you can be at sea for 28 days, making your time from a point - let's say Singapore through to New Zealand with just the crew onboard. The other one is that you could come into an anchorage, say to Auckland, and be anchored for 14 days with no guests on board, just the crew, and undertake the quarantine there."

On average, about 100 crew members are needed on each ship to operate it. One could carry up 150 guests, while the other could do up to 200. 

Bratton said they planned on using the 150-guest one for 80-plus days of expedition in and around New Zealand's coast. The expedition wouldn't leave New Zealand's waters or pick up more passengers from other countries, unless there was some sort of travel bubble by then, she said.

"We've got such proven operations there with the subantarctic but also regional New Zealand cruising. And when we had a look, over 100,000 Kiwis cruise annually, [but] not a lot of them get the opportunity to cruise their own coast or indeed to take an expedition and the reason being most of the time when we're in New Zealand we're chartered by North American companies, so we see this as a tremendous opportunity for us to create product, number one for kiwis, and if we're able to then for Aussies."

Asked whether the public would have confidence travelling on cruise ships during a pandemic, Bratton said: "Some of the words that have been banded around about what cruise ships represent, clearly that has no relevance to the style of operation where we're talking 150 guests. To me, it's a little bit like trying to compare a gulfstream private jet to an A380 aircraft."

Any positive Covid cases that might be detected on board would be immediately isolated, she said. 

"We have a series of isolation cabins that are put aside for that purpose. The other thing is we're new ships ... so the whole air conditioning situation on board, we have 100 percent fresh air coming through all the cabins, 100 percent fresh air coming into the public spaces that is then renewed five times every hour.

"This has been very successful, we've operated over the last two-and-a-half months over 50 expeditions in various parts of the world with no incidents."

Additionally, all crew would get tested prior and there were diagnostic and testing capabilities onboard as well, Bratton said. The ship's team would work the health authorities to comply with guidelines and requirements.

Ponant Cruises has until now been in weekly discussions with Maritime NZ about its proposal, but those talks are now paused until after the eleciton. 

"There appears to be some fairly good progress there, but linked to that obviously is the border opening. And if your border doesn't open, we would then be trying to get approval to come under all of those health guidelines and operate just for New Zealanders in New Zealand," Bratton said.

Maritime NZ says the maritime border remains closed with only a few specified exceptions including international fishing and cargo ships.

In exceptional circumstances, the director-general of health may grant foreign vessels entry, but they need to demonstrate a humanitarian reason or a compelling need for the ship to be delivered to a New Zealand business.

Maritime NZ says at least one cruise ship company has applied for an exemption to allow a foreign ship to enter New Zealand, and this is going through the Ministry of Health's process. But it would not comment specifically on Ponant Cruises' plans.

The company estimates that one ship here for the season would pump about $4.5 million into the economy.   

Bratton said that was because they would be buying locally for their storage and bunkers, and expected guests onboard to spend time in the regions too.

"When we've got guests flying in and out of different regional areas, very rarely do they fly in in the morning, jump on the ship and get off say in Dunedin and fly straight home, normally they'd have additional touring and accommodation, and so the economic benefit gets spread right throughout the whole community."