Ross Thorby: It is doubtful that serious cruising will return to “normal” until 2022 if not 2023

It was deeply disappointing to receive Ponant’s recent press release announcing the cancellation of their cruise season around New Zealand in February.

Their season with the ship Le Laperouse had marked what we hoped would be the restarting of our cruise industry following its decimation by the pandemic currently raging throughout the world.

The short season of seven domestic cruises offered to New Zealand residents was an opportunity to again be a world leader in the midst of the pandemic - a model already being copied by countries throughout the world in how we deal with our borders. Here was another way in which we could lead; helping an industry that has been hit extremely hard with its ships demonised throughout the world by the media as “giant floating petrie dishes”.

The whys and the wherefores regarding the reasons for Ponant’s cancellation, is now not so important. Ponant, according to their publicity department, just want to move on and look forward to the future and their return to New Zealand waters “later”. The New Zealand government certainly has already moved on, but it was none-the-less a loss financially and psychologically to our stumbling tourism market.

Although neither the travel companies or passengers were hit financially - Ponant are wearing the total cost - there is a loss of up to $6 million to our economy through the loss of provisioning and spend by the ship and passengers. An amount, although only a drop in the bucket of our GDP, is important enough to the tourism operators and suppliers who would have benefitted by the projected spend.

It was reported by Tourism New Zealand in 2017, that the total value of cruise tourism to our country in the 2018/2019 season was to be $640 million with the 2019/2020 season worth 20% more. Since our “Annus Horribilis” of 2020, that has completely vanished and according to some sources it is doubtful that serious cruising will return to “normal” until 2022 if not 2023.

Once again my generation appears to have been the lucky one with accusations of buying up all the houses, draining all the fresh lakes and ruining the country’s resources. Now we will be vilified for being the last generation to have had complete and free travel anywhere.

We will probably in fact, be the last “free to fly Kiwis”; the last generation able to enjoy unfettered and unlimited travel throughout the world. Being able to hold up your New Zealand passport to the immigration security at the world’s hotspots was sufficient for you to be waved through. When all you had to do was present a credit card at a travel agent and just like magic you could obtain a ticket to just about anywhere, the world really was our oyster. It’s hard to believe that only just over a year ago that was how the world was - yet in just the blink of an eye... Poof!

So what of the future of cruising?

The world is changing and the cruise industry will evolve - as it has in the past. It is already looking at changing protocols and systems to cope with the new world order so that the industry can be ready as soon as possible once cruising is proven to be safe to be restarted. There have already been a couple of attempts on a small scale. Our recent aborted attempt was one of them, but so far they have been unsuccessful. We had the best opportunity; sadly I believe, we blew it.

Thankfully, rather than being on the edge of extinction as they were up until recently, smaller ships will again become the norm. The vast 5000 plus passenger mega ships will become unpopular; being too difficult to manage medically and systematically. Smaller ships are easier to bring about new systems; they have less people on board, present easier movement protocols, and have more personal space. Controls and checks before boarding will be easier, with testing and maintaining social distancing on board easier to manage.

Less people - less risk.

The cruise industry will embrace these changes, but there is a chance that some cruise-lines won’t be able to survive, having already become victims and propelled to the wall with whole fleets directed to the scrapyards of India and Turkey well ahead of their time. But cruising will survive. It was, until the pandemic, one of the most popular ways of taking a holiday with New Zealand being one of the biggest growth markets in the world.

So, in the words of the great Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, I believe, “we’ll be back”. (ROSS THORBY)


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