The cruise industry is stepping up pressure to restart operations within Australasia - launching a campaign across the Tasman at the same time as one company withdraws a ship and there are fears of lasting damage to the sector.
Cruise — last year associated with some of the worst images of travelling during the pandemic — is restarting in Europe and Alaska, but in New Zealand there are no plans to relax a ban on cruising between countries.
The NZ Cruise Association is frustrated.
"We need to be more nimble and more flexible. We want it in a safe corridor between Australia and New Zealand and we could be moving but we are not," says Debbie Summers, the association's chair.
She says cruising wants an aviation-style transtasman bubble to restart the industry, worth an estimated $570 million to this country before it was halted by Covid-19.
Increasing numbers of cruise companies are requiring all crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated against Covid before they can board, and there are also other layers of safety on board vessels.
The United States Centres for Disease Control (CDC) is relaxing some of its stringent rules to allow limited trial cruising from that country, much of Europe is restarting and in New Zealand, pent-up demand has resulted in record sales of cruises for next year and beyond, especially on smaller ultra-luxury ships with more space per passenger.
While domestic cruise ships are permitted around New Zealand, international voyages aren't, and that shows no sign of changing soon.
Summers says the industry has managed some limited engagement with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and that was appreciated.
Questions about a cruise restart, a transtasman bubble and engagement with the industry were put to MBIE and Tourism Minister Stuart Nash. Both referred the Herald to the Ministry of Health, which said: "The New Zealand maritime border remains closed to all but approved trade vessels and a few other small categories. This does not allow foreign cruise ships to visit."
"The underlying rationale remains the ongoing global pandemic and the high risk associated with cruise ships," said a spokesperson.
National's tourism spokesman Todd McClay said it was ''common sense'' to have a transtasman cruise bubble if there was an aviation one. He said he had raised the impact on the tourism industry of the international cruise ban with the Government before and after the election but had not seen any action.
After prompting on earlier questions from the Herald, the MOH spokesperson added context today around why the maritime border was treated differently.
It was bigger, has more points of entry into New Zealand with a greater range of vessels arriving, and had its own complexities.
''So it was considered appropriate to split it out and focus on the air border initially (considering this is how the majority of people will travel to NZ). Conversations are underway about how and when the maritime border might be opened up, and to whom, and relevant industry stakeholders will be involved at the appropriate times.''
Summers says her group wanted to talk to the Government about a phased restart for the industry, saying Market Economics had calculated that it employed more than 11,000 New Zealanders. Many smaller cities had geared up for cruise ship visits and tourist operations designed around them.
At Napier, where Nash is MP, the port company reported a $4.2 million loss of revenue because of the absence of cruise ships in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year. Napier was also a port call by the Ruby Princess last March, linked to 20 deaths in Australia and 16 cases of Covid-19 in Hawkes Bay.
Summers says there are risks but these have been addressed with flying
Ultra-luxury cruise line Regent has announced that its Seven Seas Explorer will not be carrying out its 2021-22 Australasian programme. Steve Odell, senior vice president and managing director, Asia Pacific at Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises said during a visit to woo the trade that this was because of continuing uncertainty.
While discussions with governments had been respectful, they were moving too slowly.
Instead, the ship will cruise in the Mediterranean and then the Caribbean.
Summers says this cost Auckland hoteliers alone $500,000.
"We had hotels booked in Queenstown as well. For a small ship this sends shockwaves throughout the country."
About 60 per cent of 360,000 cruise passengers a year who cruised in this region pre-pandemic were New Zealanders and Australians, and companies would pay any quarantine bills for crew, she says.
Another cruise line had contacted her about pulling out of New Zealand. "Once we lose these ships they're not just lost for next season. These ships deploy for years in advance. We're in real danger here now."
She says her group wants to be part of a Cruise Line Industry Association (Clia) push launched in Australia that sets out how sector participants and the public can pressure politicians to get cruising restarted.
The "Ready! Set! Sail!" campaign provides templates to generate an email to local MPs and key ministers at both state and federal level.
"We encourage you to personalise the email to explain how the cruise suspension is impacting you, your family, and your business or job. Simply edit the text with your own words. A personal story will help convey how much the suspension is affecting real people across Australia," the association said when launching the campaign.
Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises say pent-up demand for international travel means New Zealanders are booking much further in advance than normal — and in premium suites for much longer journeys.
Both Oceania Cruises' 2023 around-the-world sailing and Regent Seven Seas Cruises' 2023 World Cruise are already sold out, with Kiwis spending more than many other nationalities on a per capita basis.
"Over the past eight months, our season launches have achieved record sales locally, with future bookings demonstrating that not only are New Zealanders securing their preferred itineraries well in advance, they are also booking longer voyages than ever before, with higher-category suites and staterooms selling first. It's that fear of missing out that is driving demand," said Odell.
New Zealand continues to be a highly sought-after destination, especially for Regent Seven Seas Cruises' guests, with the line's new 73-night Grand Voyage from Istanbul to Auckland already at "wait-list only" status.
Another company in the $1000-a-day-plus per passenger category, Silversea Cruises, says it will be the first to return to global ultra-luxury cruising with voyages in Greece and the Galápagos from this month.
It has announced new summer voyages in Alaska and Iceland, starting in July 2021. With the passage of the US Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, which enables cruises to Alaska without required stops in Canada, Silver Muse will resume round-trip sailings from Seattle starting July 29.