Cruising’s image has suffered a major blow following the Ruby Princess debacle and it may be years before passenger confidence returns.
Cruise ships pour $5 billion into the Australian economy but their reputation has been hurt by the coronavirus fallout.
The investigation into 19 deaths and hundreds of infections associated with the Ruby Princess still has a long way to play out and the ramifications for the industry will be far-reaching.
Criticism has also been levelled at how cruise lines reacted to the COVID-19 outbreak, which was declared a pandemic in the second week of March.
Passengers became prisoners on ships. Others were left stranded in foreign countries mid-cruise. Several thousand passengers were still on ships around the world less than a week ago.
Australian ports remain closed to cruise ships and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham has suggested reinvigorating the industry will be a low priority when international travel restrictions are finally lifted.
“Cruise travel, you would expect to be sitting right towards the end if not the very last thing that is reactivated again, given the difficulties Australia has faced with the cruise sector,” he told the ABC.
When it does restart, it will take more than clever marketing before tourists start rushing for their gangways, says Griffith University director of tourism Sarah Gardiner.
Ms Gardiner said it will take a lot of work for cruise lines to return to the pre-COVID-19 halcyon days when worldwide passenger numbers almost doubled over a decade, from 17.9 million in 2009 to 30 million in 2019.
“The scale of what has happened at the moment is significant and it’s unlike anything that we have ever seen before and quite pervasive across the whole tourism industry,” Ms Gardiner told AAP.
“There’s going to have to be some key fundamental changes that need to be made to rebuild confidence and this just won’t be a marketing effort.
“A key part of that will be improving the policies and processes in place to better manage an event and get sick people home, or better manage people that are unwell and docking at the destination.”
Cruise ships provided 3.5 million passenger visit days in 2018/19, according to an Australian cruise industry economic assessment, with Queensland and NSW the main destinations.
Ships spent a combined 521 days docked in the Sunshine State, and 379 days in NSW.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the industry had been predicting a global passenger increase of more than six per cent.
The importance of cruising for Australian tourism cannot be underestimated and will return stronger and wiser, says Cruise Lines International Association – the world’s largest cruise industry trade association.
The association’s managing director of Australasia, Joel Katz, said enhanced protocols and practices were put in place as the global crisis emerged. Restoring passenger confidence would be a key priority.
“Our focus will be on communicating this to government, industry stakeholders and the wider public, highlighting the robust screening measures, the sanitisation protocols, the standard of medical expertise we have on board, and the many levels of regulation and government oversight that we operate with,” Mr Katz said.
Mr Katz said it was too soon to speculate on the long-term impact of the pandemic on the cruise industry and travel patterns generally.
However, he believes the industry has the resilience and a responsibility to confront the challenges ahead.
“Australians, in particular, have a passion for cruising which is reflected in this region having the highest market penetration for cruising out of any established market,” he said.
“The cruise industry is deeply connected to the Australian community and the Australian economy, and we plan to do our part to contribute to the global recovery as we emerge from this pandemic.”
Ms Gardiner said the effect of the coronavirus on the cruising industry far surpassed norovirus, which causes gastroenteritis and has seen many ships dock early in Australia.
The Sun Princess had three outbreaks of norovirus in 2017, while another affected some 200 passengers on the Sea Princess in early 2018.
About a dozen norovirus outbreaks are reported each year, according to the US government’s Centre for Disease Control’s vessel sanitation program, which requires cruise ships to log and report the number of passengers and crew who come down with gastrointestinal illness.