Norwegian Cruise Line has set a date to resume sailing in New Zealand waters and says restless travellers from this region are showing unprecedented interest in cruising here.
The company, the third biggest cruise line in the world by revenue, will deploy the fully refurbished Norwegian Spirit here for the first time. It hopes the 75,000-tonne ship will make its debut out of Timaru next December 23 as part of an Australasian cruise.
Cruises have stopped around the world as Covid-19 devastated the $212 billion industry, of which close to $600 million a year was spent here. While some hyper-local small ship voyages have resumed, the timing of a return to international cruising remains uncertain.
Norwegian says it is working closely with the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on how to safely resume sailing, but the latest advice from the health agency is to avoid cruising. The CDC and the industry are doing work on a phased restart.
Norwegian Cruise Line vice-president and managing director of Asia-Pacific, Ben Angell, told New Zealand journalists this week there was optimism the industry was turning the corner, especially in this part of the world.
"We're seeing more signs of positivity and restlessness and demand to get out and explore the world again," he said.
"There seems to be a belief that with the advances in therapeutics and vaccines, that by the end of next year the world will be back to a closer to a normal state."
Asked whether Norwegian will follow plans by Qantas to impose a "no vaccination, no travel" rule, Angell said it was being considered but the issue was complex.
"It's a really tough one. It's probably easier for an Australian brand to publicly take that stance, given all the research out of Australia shows that there's a real openness to take the vaccine, but that's not true in every other market. We're not hearing the same thing out of the US and we're not hearing it out of the UK, and I'm not sure about Europe," he said.
"There's still a long way to go with negotiations with the CDC and the protocols to resume sailing. It's [a vaccine requirement] definitely something that is being considered - we'll just have to see how it unfolds."
Cruising is one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, with hundreds of ships, representing tens of billions of dollars, parked up. Dozens of older ships have already been scrapped or are heading for the scrapyard.
MarketWatch this week reported that Norwegian Cruise Line shares fell after it announced another extension of its suspension of voyages given safety concerns amid the pandemic, this time for another two months.
While the stock has rallied 35 per cent over the past three months, it has tumbled 60.7 per cent in the year to date.
By revenue, Norwegian sits behind Carnival Corp and Royal Caribbean.
In August, KPMG said that until recently cruises were the fastest growing sector of the travel industry.
Statistics show that in 2017 about 26.7 million people went on a cruise, followed by 28.5 million in 2018 and an estimated 32 million had been hoped for in 2021, before the pandemic struck.
But as a result of Covid, the industry has been hardest hit and shut down sooner than most travel sectors.
Norwegian's 17 ships are anchored in storage, although Angell said he was hopeful of a phased restart in the "not too distant future".
In a baby step, this week Royal Caribbean is operating its first revenue cruise.
Quantum of the Seas sailed from Singapore on December 1, the first in a series of three- and four-night "cruises to nowhere" open only to residents of Singapore, and with no port stops.
A tentative resumption of cruising in Norway was hit by an onboard Covid outbreak, in a setback to the industry.
Angell said pent-up demand for safe cruising was big in New Zealand.
''There is increased focus on our own backyard in the current environment - we've seen unprecedented demand and have had the largest booking days and largest booking weeks for close-to-home cruising," he said.
Fly-cruise has been the mainstay of Norwegian's market and it was still hopeful that passengers from Britain, Europe and the United States would be able to travel here, but as a contingency it was pushing harder locally as well.
The 53-year-old company had spent well over $140m refurbishing the Norwegian Spirit, which at full capacity and double occupancy could carry just over 2000 passengers.
It is not known how social distancing requirements would affect this, and although promotional rates are being offered, if there are fewer spots available, like other travel suppliers the company would be forced to put up prices.
The 12-day Australasian cruise next Christmas would include Napier and subsequent voyages would call at Gisborne, Dunedin and Auckland.
In partnership with Royal Caribbean, Norwegian's "Healthy Sail Panel" has developed 74 health and safety protocols.
It is also offering more cancellation flexibility, and passengers with embarkation dates from January 1, 2021 to October 31 next year have the flexibility to cancel their cruise 15 days before departure and receive a future cruise credit.