Australia has always embraced the waters that surround it. Even 50,000 years ago, the first Aboriginal migrants came by sea on rafts from what is now Indonesia. Later arrivals came by water too: from Captain Cook, to the shackled convicts who landed at Botany Bay, to millions of later, voluntary immigrants from Italy, Lebanon and Greece. Between 1793 and 1850 alone, to give one example, nearly 200,000 people took the perilous trip from Europe, braving waves – and scurvy – for a new life. No wonder one observer of the national psyche joked that it “would have been convenient if we’d kept our gills”.

It seems clear, moreover, that Australians have retained this enthusiasm for salty air and sea winds – not least in their love of cruising. The numbers are illuminating. In 2018, 1.35 million Australians spent a vacation at sea, with 1,240 ships docking across Australia’s 47 ports, according to a report commissioned by CLIA and the Australia Cruise Association (ACA). Unsurprisingly, all this has led to serious financial gains. At its height four years ago the Maritime Executive found that the local cruise industry contributed A$5.2bn (£2.9bn) to the Australian economy, providing jobs for nearly 20,000 people. That’s traditionally been shadowed by broader investment too, with passenger cruise vessels and docking sites sprouting up from Port Macquarie to Perth.

In 2020, however, the work of generations was crushed in a moment. With the Canberra government instituting one of the strictest lockdowns in the Western world, the Australian cruise industry vanished practically overnight. The powers that be have been so cautious about infections, in fact, that international operators are only just starting to return. Nor can insiders necessarily expect to immediately return to those pre-pandemic boom days. With increasing pressure from both officials and passengers to be sustainable and related worries about increasing prices, it seems clear that the new Australian cruise industry will not look much like the old.

Down and under

All over the world, cruise industries were ravaged by the pandemic. But now that Covid-19 poses less of an immediate threat, you get the sense that Australia suffered more than most. The government first banned international cruise passengers – and indeed all outsiders – way back in March 2020. After several false starts, major operators like P&O and Princess are only just restarting trips to Australia. And even now, passengers are obliged to follow a number of vaccination and testing requirements, a situation that has proved frustrating for industry evangelists. “Australian governments, both state and federal, took a very conservative approach to tackling Covid-19 and travel restrictions were often tighter than many other countries,” says Joel Katz, the Australasia managing director at CLIA. “While this was successful from a health perspective, it had a devastating effect on the entire tourism economy and on cruising in particular.”

Examine the statistics and it’s hard to disagree. According to one study by CLIA, the two-year ban on cruise ships cost the Australian economy $10bn, while around 18,000 jobs disappeared. Nor was this loss limited to any particular town or state. As Katz stresses, “dozens of smaller communities” welcomed cruise ships alongside gateway cities like Melbourne or Sydney. In part, this breadth can be understood by comparing Australia with other traditional cruising hotspots. “Looking at the big picture, the two main draws are that we are a relatively ‘new’ destination compared to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean,” explains Professor Ross Dowling, an expert in Australian cruising at Edith Cowan University, adding that its status as an English-speaking destination is another advantage. Though he highlights Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, indeed, Dowling is also keen to emphasise other less famous sights from wild savannas to spectacular Aboriginal rock art.

Given this natural and cultural bounty, in any case, you might have expected Australian cruising to return to business as usual. In the event, both Katz and Dowling suggest that the long cancellation of Australian cruising gave the industry a chance to change tack. That’s certainly true when it comes to health and safety: from CruiseHealth (Princess) to TravelWell (Holland America), every operator now boasts an encyclopaedia of Covid-busting regulations. Arguably more central, however, is the way operators are being prodded towards greater environmentalism. Three in four Australians now consider climate change a major threat, while the new Labor government has promised to make Australia a ‘renewable energy superpower’ over the next few decades. Together with longer-term projects, says Dowling, Australian cruising is taking “huge” steps towards a green tomorrow.

Shoring up

In the next few years, Sydney Harbour will gain a new resident. At the White Bay Cruise Terminal, flanked by handsome wood-panelled villas, arriving ships will be able to stop alongside a new ship-to-shore power system, meaning they’ll no longer have to keep their grumbling diesel engines active while in port. Working with Carnival, among other major operators, port officials stressed that the system will be 100% renewable – sparing local residents the stench and toxic fumes they’d suffered through pre-2020 and sparing the planet 14,000t of carbon emissions each year. Nor is Sydney’s new ship-to-shore system, due to go live in 2024, the only area where industry insiders are battling to improve their environmental footprint. Low-emission fuels are one particular area of focus here. Staying in Sydney, for instance, ships are now expected to switch to low-sulphur fuel while in port. Failure to comply can result in substantial fines. Further west, meanwhile, Melbourne’s port now offers its own low-sulphur fuel, the first of its type manufactured in the country. That’s shadowed by the work of specific Australian cruise lines. Aurora Expeditions, an adventure cruise that hosts trips to Antarctica, was recently certified as totally carbon neutral. Among other things, the Sydney-based company sponsored Aboriginal conservation projects and purchased carbon credits from a Taiwanese wind farm. “There’s an enormous amount of innovation under way and ahead of us,” says Katz, “and we can see this among the initiatives cruise lines are embarking upon around the world.”

As all this activity implies, meanwhile, operators are clearly aware that success is only possible through close collaboration with landlocked officials. Think about it like this: operators like Carnival can parade their green credentials all they want – but that will mean little until officials actually build the prerequisite ship-to-shore infrastructure. More to the point, this same principle is being borne out in other parts of Australia. At the port of Broome, an isolated stretch of coastline some 1,200 miles northeast of Perth, officials are currently building a A$110m (£62.4m) floating jetty. As Downing explains, it’ll allow cruise ships large and small to dock at any tide, a significant boon for such a remote area. The same is true, Downing adds, at Exmouth Gulf, a similarly barren corner of western Australia famous for its turtles and sharks.

Costs and benefits

Beyond backing Australian tourism and bolstering Australia’s green credentials, it’s not hard to understand why officials are so eager to offer operators shiny new goodies. In Sydney, for example, bulk carriers stand to benefit from the ship-to-shore system too, while its high-power cable will also connect to the city’s underground. As Katz explains, the scheme represents “a great example of cruise lines, ports, government and other industry stakeholders uniting to achieve common goals and positive outcomes for local communities.” All the same, it’d be wrong to imply that investing heavily in green power is without its challenges.

Perhaps most fundamental is the question of cost. Low-sulphur fuels and the like are undoubtedly better for the planet – but the same cannot be said for the wallet. As Downing puts it: “The investment in hybrid, gas and electric-powered cruise ships means that inevitably the price of cruises will rise.” Given the Australian cruise industry has traditionally prided itself on offering cheap and cheerful holidays for natives and foreigners alike, this could have serious consequences for how it advertises and balances profits. Yet, as Downing continues, simply ignoring these environmental quandaries is impossible. In ten years’ time, he warns, the “current model of diesel-powered ships” will be hopelessly antiquated – and crucially unacceptable to younger, environmentally savvy cruisers.

To put it another way, if a changing operating model might cause problems in the immediate term, it seems clear that wholeheartedly embracing the sustainability revolution is vital in the decades ahead. “Australia’s revival of cruise operations is expected to begin cautiously but develop further to rejoin the trends seen in other countries in the near future,” stresses Katz, noting that the industry should finally return to pre-pandemic levels next year. Combined with all that feverish investment, and you have to imagine it’ll soon register genuine growth shortly thereafter, continuing Australia’s long fascination with the bays and reefs beyond its shores along the way.