Murray River cruises: Cruising returns to Australia, but not on the ocean

While ocean cruising, that once cherished but now widely-maligned pastime, remains all at sea with an undetermined return date, a lower-profile equivalent will quietly make a comeback this month along Australia's most famous waterway.

Thanks to South Australia's success in eliminating the coronavirus within its borders, operators of cruises on the Murray River have become among the first in Australia to resume, albeit in a limited capacity.

Captain Cook Cruises, after suspending operations due to COVID-19, will begin its first post-pandemic cruise aboard its PS Murray Princess vessel on June 23 with 40 passengers due to social distancing requirements.

A rival company, Proud Mary, was promoting a Murray River cruise for South Australians departing from as early as last week while the PS Emmylou, which starred (as PS Providence) in the Australian TV mini-series All the Rivers Run. is operating a two-night cruise from the Port of Echucha in Victoria return from June 19 .

The normal passenger capacity for the PS Murray Princess is 120 passengers with fares for the "welcome back" cruise aboard the classic paddlewheeler, specially built to cruise the river, starting from $2099 a person, twin share. It will sail between the South Australian towns of Renmark and Mannum, located on the banks of the Murray.

There will be more cruises, including a scheduled seven night "Upper Murraylands Cruise", within South Australia but future itineraries will depend on the much, if not agonisingly, awaited opening of state borders.

"Victoria, NSW and Queensland are our biggest interstate markets for Murray Princess cruises," says Julie-Anne Briscoe, marketing manager of SeaLink - South Australia, owners of Captain Cook Cruises. "We are looking forward to borders opening but we are happy to remain cautious. We want everyone to be safe.

"But we do feel that there may be a whole new market out there of 'cruisers' who may love doing cruises in the Med, Canada and Alaska, or the rivers of Europe, but have never thought of cruising in their own country. They will be looking for safe, secure cruising and maybe not with the big numbers of passengers that the bigger sea cruises have."

Of course, passengers will be subject to COVIDSAFE guidelines including stringent and rigorous hygiene standards, cleaning procedures and health and safety practices. Crew have been briefed and trained on hand hygiene and sanitising with a focus on hard surfaces, such as tables, handrails, door handles and counters.

Meanwhile, the immediate future of ocean cruising in Australia remains uncertain with the federal government having last month extended its ban on cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers from June 17 for a further three months to September 17, around the same time as the scheduled start of the next cruise season.

Captain Cook Cruises also operates luxury small ship cruises in Fiji and will be anxiously awaiting news of the Pacific island nation's inclusion in the vaunted trans-Tasman bubble with Australia and New Zealand. Before the pandemic the cruise line operated regular cruises in the famously turquoise Fijian waters of between three days and 11 days.