Australia cruise ship ban: Singapore shows way forward to successful resumption of sailings

Every Monday and Thursday since December, Quantum of the Seas departs Singapore in a demonstration of what, a year ago, seemed an impossibility: healthy, safe and incident-free leisure cruises.

Of course, this Quantum leap has been aided by the fact that Singapore, like Australia, has been a COVID-19 suppression exemplar, with the island state's success in restoring cruising a palpable means of reviving a multi-billion dollar tourism industry on which the nation is strongly dependent.

Indeed, away from a still COVID-19 burdened Europe and North America, Singapore represents a model for others to emulate. A case in point is Australia with the becalmed cruising industry here still tainted by the costly Ruby Princess debacle (one year ago this month) and fraught with tremulous state governments and health authorities.

Gavin Smith, vice-president and managing director of Royal Caribbean Australia and New Zealand, says collaboration with Singapore authorities, including its Ministry of Health and the Singapore Tourism Board, has been the key to success of cruising in the island state.

That has allowed Quantum of the Seas, one of the world's largest ships, to operate successfully. The ship has capacity for 4905 passengers, but occupancy is capped at 50 per cent under Singapore's current rules.

"[The collaboration] has been vital, not only to gain their support and understanding, but in reassuring our Singapore guests," says Smith, who is also chair of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia. "We are working with Australian governments and seeking this level of collaboration in Australia."

Smith believes that the Singapore experience, which has been guided by science from the outset, will act as a kind of medical "pilot boat" for the return of large ships to Australian waters.

Before the pandemic, Australia was renowned for having the highest market penetration of any cruise market outside of the US. But the Australian government recently extended its international border closure until at least June. What began as a 30-day ban on cruise ship arrivals on March 15, 2020, will now extend for well over a year.

Currently only Australian-flagged cruise ships with less than 100 passengers are able to seek approval from authorities to operate in Australian waters.

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However, the embrace of science to address cruising's health issues is not confined to Singapore. It is a global effort with revolutionary vaccines and testing at the heart of it, says Joel Katz, CLIA's managing director, Australasia.

"Almost immediately upon the declaration of a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, cruise lines began engaging with epidemiologists, health authorities and other medical experts globally to learn as much as possible about COVID-19 and to develop a comprehensive global response," says Mr Katz.

CLIA-member cruise lines – which represent more than 90 per cent of cruise line capacity globally – have committed to a new policy that introduces health protocols into virtually every aspect of the cruise experience.

"It includes commitments like 100 per cent testing of all passengers and crew prior to embarkation with a negative result mandatory prior to boarding, as well as extensive measures covering crew quarantine, distancing, sanitation, health monitoring and response procedures.

"Everything from the boarding process to the buffet has been re-evaluated and adapted in line with the best available medical insight. These measures are designed to uphold the safety of guests, crew and the communities we visit as our number one priority, wherever we sail in the world.

"We assembled a taskforce of the world's leading medical and scientific experts – the "Healthy Sail Panel" – to help us establish the strongest protocols in the travel industry. The Singapore sailings put their recommendations into action. Science will continue to inform our approach."

One of the challenges the industry must address in gaining approval for cruising to resume is how to reintroduce and manage the health of foreign-based crews drawn largely from developing nations with high incidences of COVID-19 such as The Philippines and Indonesia.

It is these valued but lowly-paid crew members who traditionally, and controversially, underpin the global cruise industry business model.

The next big test for Royal Caribbean, and for that matter the entire cruise industry, will be the May launch of cruising in Israel. The ships will travel to the Greek islands and Cyprus in the Mediterranean and the voyages will be between three and seven nights.

Why Israel? It's a nation with a generally good COVID-19 containment record and an even better one in terms of vaccine distribution among its population of about nine million. These cruises will see Royal Caribbean become the first line to offer fully-vaccinated sailings for passengers aboard the new, high-tech, Odyssey of the Seas.

The line plans to work with a private contractor to ensure that any crew member who is not able to be vaccinated in their home country is vaccinated before sailing. If these voyages are incident-free, it may prove another blueprint for at least the tentative return of cruising to waters Down Under.

See also: Cruise ships banned? Not quite: Cruises you can definitely still do

See also: The cruise that's so popular, it's selling out more than a year in advance

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