29 Jan 2021

Cruise ship denial doesn't make sense - travel group manager

From Checkpoint, 6:07 pm on 29 January 2021

A travel company who has a charter cruise ship held off the New Zealand coast with most of the crew denied visas says the government has let it down.

The boat Le Laperouse was granted an exemption to come to New Zealand for cruise season, but the government says the owners were told the crew all needed to get individual visas to cross our closed borders.

Immigration NZ says the ship set sail from Jakarta just two days after filing applications for 90 foreign crew, but were told twice during the journey that 61 of the crew did not meet the criteria for critical workers and had been denied visas.

Wild Earth Travel is chartering the ship for cruises to the sub-Antarctic. The company believes when the ship was approved for entry, an undertaking was given to allow all the crew in too.

"I really don't see what the other solution is because the crew for the ship really have to have significant training and expertise to be able to deliver the ship and the voyage," Wild Earth Travel general manager Aaron Russ told Checkpoint.

"They have to have safety training and long experience to be able to safely navigate the ship, and the minister seems to think that New Zealanders are the solution. But the timeframes really haven't allowed that."

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the ship had clearance to conduct maintenance and servicing in New Zealand, but only if crew had appropriate visas. Currently the boat only has crew onboard. Passengers would be embarking from New Zealand.

Faafoi said the 61 crew denied visas included bar staff, a hairdresser. The other 29 who did get visas were critical for operating the vessel.

Russ said those denied visas were employed for such jobs but in addition they are specifically trained in firefighting, first aid and safe evacuation practices.

"The information that I have is that the owners were working closely with the Ministry of Health and they submitted their applications for the ship's arrival which were approved by the Ministry of Health, detailing all the crews that were necessary for them.

"I would say that there's been a misunderstanding, simply because the process is exceptionally unclear currently with the rules and regulations.

"I was first informed by the owners of the vessel two days ago that the Immigration Department was intending to deny visas for the 61 hotel crew. Prior to that I was I was not aware of any correspondence.

"I've been involved with the application process through the Ministry of Health. But the government departments have also been very clear that they will only communicate with the owners of the vessel, so as a charterer I'm a third party to that relationship."

More than 300 people were booked to travel on the ship over the next two months, Russ said.

Faafoi said it was unwise to take bookings for the cruise when the paperwork had not been sorted out.

But Russ said the bookings his company took came after clearance from the Ministry of Health.

"I personally believe the New Zealand government has let us down when we've taken all the steps to deliver some unique experiences for New Zealanders to set out and explore New Zealand over the coming months.

"This is New Zealand companies that are working to their utmost during challenging times of Covid-19 to continue to deliver unique experiences for New Zealand as they're innovating, and the government simply is adopting an approach which is preventing that innovation from occurring.

"The ship's crew that have issued visas for, the officers and engineers are aboard the exact same ship as the hotel crew. They've all been through 27 days of quarantine.

"If the ship didn't have a hotel crew aboard, it would be permitted to enter New Zealand tomorrow. But because it has the hotel crew aboard it's now no longer safe.

"It just doesn't make sense from a health perspective. This is an ideological approach to the border."

Russ said his company's financial hit will be over $1.5 million.

"It hurts exceptionally when it's not a health risk.

"The crew on board the ship have all completed the outline health procedures. They have simply been denied entry to New Zealand on the basis of whether they are deemed to be critical workers or not. Not on their on their health status."

In response Faafoi said the decision was not ideological.

"Mr Russ is wrong. This is not about managed isolation or quarantine. It's about the visa process, and the processes for critical workers have been in place for months now. And many businesses and sectors that would like to bring in workers because they need critical work done have applied, and been approved, and some have been declined.

"They went through this process and were told in order for this ship to come to New Zealand and for the crew to come to New Zealand those visas would have to be obtained and they haven't. But they kept on steaming to New Zealand.

"This has got nothing to do with time spent at sea. It's about being ticking the boxes for the criteria and going through the processes of getting visas to cross the border, which is closed at the moment to ensure that New Zealanders are safe from a threat of Covid-19."

However, children's entertainers The Wiggles have been granted visas to enter New Zealand.

"If you're looking at the criteria and parameters for essential and critical workers, they were for economic, cultural and social purposes," Faafoi said.