It may have taken a while, but cruising has officially returned to New Zealand.
P&O Cruises’ Pacific Explorer ship docked in Auckland on Friday (Aug. 12) with about 2,000 passengers and crew on board as part of a 12-day return trip to Fiji that left from Sydney.
It follows the New Zealand government’s decision to open the international maritime border after July 31 and represents a key moment in the country's travel and tourism recovery, which has only begun to materialize in recent months.
The island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean closed its borders in early 2020 as it tried at first to eradicate COVID-19 completely.
New Zealand reopened its borders to most tourists arriving by plane in May and it wasn't until two weeks ago that all remaining restrictions, including those on maritime arrivals, were lifted.
"Amazing, isn't it?" the country’s Tourism Minister Stuart Nash told The Associated Press. "It's another step in the reopening of our borders and a step closer to resuming business as usual."
Pre-pandemic, tourism accounted for about 20 per cent of New Zealand's foreign income and more than five per cent of GDP.
And Minister Nash said it would take some time for international tourist numbers and revenue to return to the levels they once were.
"I think there's been many people in the tourism sector who have done it hard over the last two years," Nash told AP. "But we've always taken an approach where we need to ensure that we get the health response right. Because if we don't, we know the consequences are dire."
Pacific Explorer is the first ship to visit as part of a gradual return to operations in New Zealand that will continue with visits by other ships in spring and summer.
Joining the rest of the world
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Managing Director Australasia Joel Katz said the New Zealand cruise community can now begin rebuilding an industry that was previously worth almost NZ$570 million a year to the New Zealand economy.
“New Zealand has now joined the rest of the world in a careful resumption of cruise operations,” Mr. Katz said in a statement. “We now have an opportunity to revive a sector that previously supported many thousands of jobs in communities right around the New Zealand coast.”
But not everyone is thrilled about the news.
As reported by the Associated Press, a boat carrying protesters angry about the cruise industry's impact on the environment followed Pacific Explorer into the harbour on Friday, just before passengers were greeted with an Indigenous Maori welcome and a visit by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Minister Nash said New Zealand used its COVID shutdown to reset its priorities, one of which is to market the destination to wealthier "high quality" tourists who might stay a little longer.
"We are not targeting the guys that come over and put up on Facebook, 'Hey, travel around New Zealand on $10 a day living on two-minute noodles,"' Nash told AP.
As for CLIA’s take, Mr. Katz noted how the cruise industry’s health measures have been shown to be effective in more than 100 other countries where cruising has already resumed.
“The experience on cruise ships overseas has shown significantly lower levels of serious illness and hospitalization than on land,” he said while also acknowledging that “no setting is immune.”
“The sight of Pacific Explorer in Waitematā Harbour will be cause for celebration for the many New Zealanders who rely on cruise tourism for their livelihoods, and for the wider tourism industry as New Zealand approaches the summer cruise season ahead,” he said.