Cruise ship operators need to make major changes to guarantee safety in a post-COVID-19 world, but divisions remain between unions and industry about how to ensure a situation like that on the Ruby Princess never happens again.
It is a time of great flux for the cruise industry. Operators are vowing higher standards in the wake of the Ruby Princess debacle. Unions are calling for regulatory oversight and reinvestment in Australian-flagged ships.
Some cruise operators are already planning on setting sail again in September once the international cruise ship ban ends, but government health officials have made it clear Australians should not be booking cruise holidays just yet.
What all parties can agree on is this: it can't be business as usual in a post-COVID-19 world.
"There’s a requirement that we do a lot of work to regain confidence amongst our travellers," says Joel Katz, Australasia managing director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
"Our cruise lines are really doing a thorough analysis of the door to door process for our passengers, from the moment they make a booking to the moment they get home, to try understand how each element of that passenger journey is impacted by the current situation and how they can address the risks associated with those elements."
Pre-pandemic, the cruise industry was going from strength to strength.
A new $177 million Brisbane International Cruise Terminal was heralded as a game changer, as were a key port dredging project in Cairns, wharf developments in Townsville, Gladstone and Eden, and infrastructure projects in Broome.
In its latest report, the Australian Cruise Association (ACA) said some 1.35 million Australians took cruises in 2018, and the industry had a roughly $5 billion economic impact in Australia. Growth, the ACA said, was only limited by domestic cruising opportunities.
The ACA and CLIA say they're still calculating the economic hit to the industry wrought by COVID-19, but have been buoyed by interest from passengers keen to cruise once the foreign vessel ban ends.
Passengers being tempted back
That early interest has been driven largely by a big sale on cruise tickets for upcoming seasons.
Discounts of anywhere between 30 to 70 per cent on deals and generous terms on refunds have seen passengers re-engage with cruise companies such as Blue Lagoon Cruises, Carnival Cruises and Royal Caribbean.
Passionate cruise-goers in Australia such as Gerry Bhattacharya say the pandemic hasn't destroyed their hopes of future holidays on the seas. But she wants to see concrete changes in cruise health and medical protocols before she'll sail again.
"I would definitely go on a cruise again but probably not for some time. Personally, I would like to know that there have been some regulations [put in place]. I don't think I'd trust just the cruiseliners themselves. I'd want it from a bigger body," she says.
"Going on my past experience, with things like buffets, discos and bingo there are a lot of things that need to change to feel safe. I'd want to obviously know that they've got good pandemic protocols in place and we'd need to be sailing to what I would consider to be a safe place."
Joel Katz from CLIA is confident the sector can meet those demands.
"We’ve always been a resilient industry. We have a vast number of people who are avid cruisers and passionate cruisers and we have no doubt those passenegers on the whole will be ready to resail with us when the time is right," he says.
The question now is, when is the right time? All stakeholders are waiting and watching closely as the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess unfolds. The investigation, led by Bret Walker SC, into Australia’s largest single source of coronavirus cases continues next week and is due to report back by 14 August.
"I can’t comment on the specific cases that are subject to inquiries," says Mr Katz. "What has happened in cruise and travel and tourism in general has been absolutely tragic. But as an industry we will learn from everything that’s happened. We will work with the local authorities, we will work with the medical experts around the world and we’ll do what ever we need to do to restore confidence."
He says that includes new pre-cruise questionnaires for passengers, screening at terminals, social distancing rules, changes to food services, sanitation and cleanliness procedures and new onboard medical facilities.
But unions representing seafarers say change must be more fundamental than that.
They're calling for beefed up regulations to clamp down on foreign-flagged vessels, which make up the vast majority of cruise ships in Australia.
The CLIA says vessels already comply with the International Labour Organisation's Maritime Labour Convention, which sets out standards for seafarers and to which Australia is a signatory. But unions argue all operators are ultimately subject to laws in their home port, countries such as Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas, where wages are low and regulations lax.
Unions and seafarer advocacy groups want reinvestment in Australia's domestic cruise fleet to enshrine Commonwealth law and workplace standards on more workers in Australian waters. They also want to keep taxes paid by cruise operators in Australia.
"It’s not only about safeguards for workers. I think we’ve got a once in a lifetime opportunity following the COVID-19 outbreak," says Dean Summers, the Australian coordinator for the International Transport Workers Federation.
"We should be looking at opportunities to increase our participation as a nation in that industry, not be completely reliant on foreign flags to carry people around our coast and in our region. And I think there must be safeguards, some oversight to check on the behaviour and effectiveness of the cruise ship industry."
"We need a body that’s made up of all industry, unions and government agencies. But it’s got to be a body that’s got some teeth. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like now, but I want the conversation to begin," Mr Summers says.
"I don’t think the industry is going to be very happy about having some level of regulation or some level of oversight, but it has to happen."
Mr Summers says findings from the Ruby Princess inquiry should help ignite the discussion between stakeholders.
Paddy Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia national necretary, insists it must be a tripartite approach involving industry, workers and government.
"We had this collision of long-term policy neglect, deregulation predicated upon opportunism and exploitation of a deregulated environment. And so we’ve got this situation where we have this great industry, good for the economy, good for tourism but essential that it be regulated properly, and there’s no one to regulate it."
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