Australia cruising ban: P&O's Pacific Explorer becomes first ship to enter Sydney Harbour for two years

The first international cruise ship arrived in Sydney on Monday morning, one day after the Australian government's ban on cruising lifted.

P&O's Pacific Explorer entered Sydney Harbour at 9.30am, arriving at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay about 10.30am.

The cruise liner's arrival was met with a maritime hero's welcome, with three water cannon tugs escorting the ship through the harbour and sending up huge ribbons of waters to salute Pacific Explorer's arrival. There were 250 crew on board but no passengers. 

Another 600 crew will join the ship before its first passenger cruise on May 31, a four-night round trip from Sydney to Brisbane.

It will be followed by Ponant's Le Laperouse at the end of the month, with operations recommencing on April 28 for a Darwin to Broome sailing in time for the crucial Kimberley season.

President of Carnival Australia and P&O Cruises Marguerite Fitzgerald described the sight of the Pacific Explorer sailing into the harbour as "an emotional moment for our employees, many thousands of guests and our numerous cruise suppliers, travel agents and entertainers."

"There could be no better way to welcome Pacific Explorer home than to have the harbour's tugs out in force to greet her. It doesn't get more Sydney than that," said Fitzgerald.

Video: Watch Pacific Explorer's arrival in Sydney

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"It was my singular mission to make sure that we were the first cruise line back," she said. "We are the Australian cruise line, we're also the only cruise line that has Australian operations and so that means that it's important for us to be the first back, because we are able to work through the various protocols locally to make sure the ships are ready to come back in six weeks when we take our first guests on board."

NSW Tourism Minister Stuart Ayres said the cruise industry is a significant contributor to the NSW economy, an important part of the nation's tourism industry and a major employer.

"Not only is this announcement important to industry and their passengers, cruising supports our tourism operators, hospitality industry and all those local suppliers who help with the enormous task of re-supplying ships," he said.

Sydney couple Dannielle Morgan and Joshua Hendriks were among the welcome brigade for the ship. They won a contest prior to the pandemic including a free cruise on the Pacific Explorer, but the pair also have a personal connection to the ship.

"We got engaged on the Explorer in Februrary 2019, so I would probably say that's our happy place," said Morgan. "We are currently going to go on the first cruise out of Sydney, and that will be just after we're married, so we'll be on our honeymoon, and no doubt we'll definitely book more cruises in the near future.

"I'm excited, like we haven't had a holiday since our last cruise in 2019 so it's basically that extra holiday we didn't actually think we were actually going to get so soon."

The ban on international cruise vessels from entering Australia began in March 2020, in the wake of a major COVID-19 outbreak on board the Ruby Princess, where authorities allowed thousands of passengers to disembark before going through COVID-19 checks.

Joel Katz, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) managing director Australasia, said extensive new health protocols would allow a staggered restart of cruising.

"More than a million Australians took an ocean cruise every year before the pandemic and we now have an opportunity to return to sailing and revive an industry that was worth more than $5 billion annually to the Australian economy," said Katz.

"The end of the cruise suspension is huge landmark and will be celebrated by many thousands of Australians whose livelihoods depend on cruising."

Among the new protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 is ensuring all guests over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated, requiring passengers and crew to produce a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding, and implementing special COVID-19 protocols for on-shore excursions, with particular consideration of the needs of regional communities.

Cruise operators will also provide a range of enhanced on board health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus, including new, enhanced cleaning protocols and social distancing.

The demand for cruising in the wake of the ban lift is high, according to cruise suppliers, who have been busy rehiring leading up to the restart.

Dan Russell, general manager of travel agency Clean Cruising, said bookings have surged dramatically since the government announced an end to the ban.

"I can confirm we have been steadily busy every day since the cruise resumption was announced and we are actively seeking up to five cruise consultants and a consultant support role to keep up with the current demand," said Mr Russell.

"It is the best thing to be creating jobs again. For the first time in two years, we can forecast income that we know won't be cancelled, which lets us finally do some proper business planning."

See also: Cruising ban ends: Which ships are coming back to Australia

See also: Unfinished world's biggest cruise ship up for sale after bankruptcy