23 Sep 2021

Cruise ship industry sends warning over border uncertainty

7:30 pm on 23 September 2021

The cruise ship industry says New Zealand is at risk of losing trips and companies if uncertainty around the border continues.

cruise ship

File image Photo: Unsplash / Billy Pasco

Princess Cruises announced plans to extend the pause on trips to Australia and Aotearoa into early next year with some cancelled through to March.

The summer cruise season usually gets underway from October and runs until April.

While cruising is back on the menu for travellers in parts of Europe and Asia, the local industry says that ship - and hope - has nearly sailed for the upcoming season.

Before Covid-19, the upcoming cruise season was expected to bring in upwards of $650 million to the economy.

Instead, the cancellations have been piling up.

Cruise Association chief executive Kevin O'Sullivan was not surprised by the news, but said it was a bitter pill to swallow.

"We've lost so far over 60 percent of the bookings for the 21/22 season," O'Sullivan said.

"So at the moment, we're sort of less than 40 percent less of bookings. I expect there will probably be more cancellations as we go on."

Part of the issue was that there was not a timeframe for when cruise ships could come back - and discussions with the government had stalled, he said.

"Once we get up to the 90 percent of vaccination and the borders begin to soften then that's getting a long way down the track towards working on what needs to happen in New Zealand."

New Zealand cruise company Heritage Expeditions got an exemption to bring a passenger vessel into our waters and run trips in the Southern Ocean.

Commercial director and expedition leader Aaron Russ said adapting was key after losing 85 to 90 percent of their usual guests when the border closed.

"It's survive or die in the current climate for us and so we've had to adapt and adjust. But it's exceptionally challenging. There's a high amount of uncertainty in everything we do."

His company had just wrapped up a successful season in Russia.

"So we required that guests coming aboard as well as all of our staff and crew were all vaccinated or had negative pcr tests."

He was not surprised international operators were cancelling.

"A lot of northern hemisphere partners that we work with are discounting New Zealand as a destination for years ahead because of their marketing cycles. We are very at risk of being left behind."

Ponant Cruises Asia Pacific chairman Sarina Bratton hoped they would not need to cancel their December trips out of Dunedin

But the closed border was making them reconsider future trips, she said.

The company planned at least two years in advance and already planned for less presence in New Zealand in 2023, she said.

The 2024 plan was next on their list.

"Hopefully we'll be able to get some better certainty from the government before we sign off on that to enable us to include New Zealand because it would be such a great shame to not be operating there."

Some high-end touring companies were no longer planning to charter vessels to come to New Zealand, she said.

Pounamu Tourism Group owner Paul Jackson said thousands of cruise ship passengers would usually travel on the Marlborough Flyer steam train each season.

This year, he was preparing for a domestic-only season.

"We've erred on the side of caution as we've just really focused on the domestic market. We haven't budgeted on cruise ships returning until the end of next year," Jackson said.

Only approved trade vessels and a few other small categories are allowed through the maritime border.

The Ministry of Health said foreign cruise ships were not allowed to visit but domestic cruise ships travelling within New Zealand waters currently could operate.

"At this stage the government has no plans to make any changes to the maritime border settings in relation to cruise ships. The underlying rationale remains the ongoing global pandemic and the high risk associated with cruise ships."

Several government agencies were collaborating to see how the maritime border could open in a safe and effective way.

"The maritime border is bigger, has more points of entry into New Zealand with a greater range of vessels arriving, and comes with its own complexities."

The border has been split with the focus on the air border due to the way most people travel across the Tasman.

"Consideration is being given to how and when the maritime border might be opened up, and to whom."

Carnival Corporation - which operates Princess Cruises - declined to comment.

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