Meet a fellow tourist in Tahiti, and chances are they arrived by ship. In fact, before the pandemic, more than one-third of the island's visitors were cruise passengers.
However, French Polynesia has followed in the footsteps of countries like Thailand, Venice and Amsterdam and used the pandemic's forced pause to address the future of cruise tourism.
A future that, as of January 1, 2022, won't include 'mega cruise ships'.
In a late September announcement, the Fresh Polynesian government announced port calls would be banned for cruise ships with a capacity greater than 3,500.
Ships with a capacity of more than 2,500 would be restricted to Tahiti, Moorea and Raiatea while Bora Bora – the country's top destination – could only welcome 1,200 cruise passengers per day.
The ban will be a long-awaited win for Bora Bora, who had been requesting a limitation since 2019. The small island said restrictions would help minimise the burden on local infrastructure and "preserve the beauty of its lagoon as well as the quality of service which has made it famous."
Given how cruises generated a quarter of Tahiti's tourism-related revenue and one-third of visitors in 2019, the ban may seem risky. However, many of the region's more popular ships are already on the smaller side.
Tahiti-based luxury cruise liners Paul Gauguin and Aranui 5 both operate ships with fewer than 350 passengers.
The measure, according to the Government, is a preventative one that both acknowledges the steady growth of the industry and the country's clear limitations.
"Both in terms of capacity and size, [very large ships] are not suited for our destination," the statement said.
The ban will disrupt some holiday makers' grand plans as 3,600-person ships like Royal Princess and Majestic Princess were scheduled to visit Tahiti and Bora Bora next year.
A spokesperson for Princess Cruises told Condé Nast Traveller they were "in dialogue with port officials" and hoped planned voyages would go ahead.
Since there are limited ports in the Pacific, many cruises dock at Tahiti for technical reasons. Therefore, French Polynesia president, Édouard Fritch said there could be exceptions to the ban for transpacific voyages.
French Polynesia isn't the first destination to restrict mega cruise ships.
In early 2021, Cayman Islands' premier Alden McLaughlin announced that previous plans to build a new cruise port would be scrapped.
Cruise ship liners Royal Caribbean and Carnival said their new, larger ships would skip destinations that didn't provide sufficient berthing facilities, however, McLaughlin said he was no longer focused on growing cruise tourism.
"We can survive without the large numbers, and we need more balance—not to overwhelm the systems we have by sheer volume of people," he said during a press conference in February.
In Europe, Venice has also taken aim at big ships. Since August, cruise ships over 25,000 tons have been banned from the lagoons and forced to berth at a nearby port in Marghera. From there, visitors must bus into the ancient city centre.
At a glance it's easy to paint the bans as a crackdown forcing mega cruises out of small destinations. However, it's also worth noting that, as Royal Caribbean and Carnival stated regarding the Cayman Island's cancelled port plans, mega-ships tend to favour larger ports anyway.
This makes sense too, if a port or destination doesn't have the facilities to manage passengers, it won't be a win for the cruise liner either.
Bans like Tahiti's are less about 'ending cruises' altogether but instead ensuring those that do visit can be properly facilitated for the best experience, while also preserving the very destination that attracts them in the first place.
New Zealand's Cruise Future
Closer to home, international cruise liners can't seem to wait to enter New Zealand waters, offering bookings for trans-Tasman voyages that arrive as early as February 2.
Departing January 10 2022 from LA, the Viking World Horizons Cruise plans to take up to 930 guests to Waitangi on February 2, followed by Auckland, Tauranga, Napier and Wellington.
Norwegian Cruise Lines is also promoting a 12-day cruise aboard their 2,018-passenger ship 'Norweigian Spirit'. The ship will depart Sydney on February 9 bound for Auckland and visit Eden, Tasmania, Malborough, Wellington and Gisborne along the way.
Later in February, cruise liner Carnival also plans to run a 12-day return voyage from Sydney to Auckland for 3,012 passengers on February 20.
A Port of Tauranga spokesperson told Sunlive that cruise ships had made bookings for early 2022 but said this was not uncommon as the industry often scheduled years in advance.
Tourism Bay of Plenty general manager Oscar Nathan said the return of international cruises would be important for the region's economy but will depend on the government.
"The 2019-20 cruise season was worth over $70m to our local economy and this was cut short by Covid-19," he said.
"We cannot understate the significance of its return to operators who provide specialised tours and transport for cruise passengers, as well as local retailers."
However, as a board member of Cruise NZ, Nathan said the safety of passengers must be the priority.
"As a host community we need to ensure, foremostly, that cruise is safe with clear and mandated protocols, as well as being well-planned and managed for the benefit of residents, operators and visitors alike."