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New Zealand cruising in turmoil as government changes the rules and refuses approved PONANT ship entry

February 4, 2021 Cruise News No Comments

The New Zealand cruise sector is in turmoil this week after the 264 passenger luxury expedition cruise ship Le Lapérouse, owned by French company PONANT and chartered to a New Zealand company Wild Earth Travel, was held waiting outside New Zealand waters, because many of the officers and crew were refused visas, although, according to the operators, the crew were given prior approval by the Ministry of Health to enter New Zealand – see below.

The operators has confirmed that the ship was granted an economic exemption on December 18 to operate a season of New Zealand-only sailings from February 8, however she was held at sea pending further decision, with the owners, saying they had been granted the exemption last year to operate local expeditions with a maximum of 100 New Zealand guests at a time.

A spokesperson for Ponant Michael Corbett in Australia said it was a “shock decision” by INZ to only approve 25% of their crews’ visas, adding, “Ponant and the relevant Government bodies are actively engaged in discussions today to resolve this issue”.

Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi said when Le Laperouse was given permission to travel to New Zealand “that approval was on the condition that Le Laperouse obtained the necessary visas from Immigration New Zealand”, adding, “I want to make it clear, our border is closed”, and, “That was made clear to the ship’s agents at least twice”.

He added, “I understand that INZ [Immigration New Zealand] received a request for border exceptions for 90 foreign crew members on board the vessel 48 hours before it began its journey to New Zealand.”  “INZ granted visas to 29 of the crew who were considered essential for the operation of the ship to travel to New Zealand for the purpose of delivering it to a business and for refit or refurbishment.”  “Immigration declined visas for the other 61 crew who were not considered essential for the purpose of the ship’s travel here,” adding, these staff included hairdressers, bartenders and masseuses.

He added, “The ship should have waited for decisions on visas to be completed to ensure those on board complied with New Zealand immigration requirements when the ship entered our border.”

He said, “I want to make it clear, our border is closed,” he said.

Wild Earth Travel director Aaron Russ chartered the ship from Ponant, with seven expeditions planned around New Zealand, with the first due to start in Auckland on February 8, with only New Zealanders travelling, the travel plans of up to 700 Kiwis have now been thrown into disarray.

With officials talking to the ship about options, Faafoi said one of those options is for it to turn around and another is the ship docks, but the 61 staff will be required to leave “immediately”.

Faafoi said the ship kept sailing, despite the visa applications being declined and the firm organizing the cruise had already began marketing the cruise in New Zealand, which Faafoi said he would charitably call that “unwise”, adding, he had to be “diplomatic” about his comments about the event – that’s why he won’t go further than “unwise”.

He also said that if the ship comes to New Zealand, the 61 people would either be quarantined on the ship until they are sent home – or they would be “detained”, with Faafoi not elaborating on where they would be detained, adding, the ship has a French flag.

He said that if the ship does dock here, the 61 crew members would be sent home at their own expense, but he said the best outcome would be that the ship would turn around, adding, repeatedly “Our border is closed,” adding, “Letting the 61 workers in would set a very bad precedent.”

Tour operators Viva say the ship is currently less than 300 miles away from Auckland, after sailing from Asia, adding, “all crew members have been isolated for 27 days, have had 4 negative PCR tests and are fully trained in the company’s Covid-safe protocols, safety and emergency operations.”

In the meantime Michael Corbett representing Ponant provided me with this timeline of what Ponant says transpired in the discussions between the port agent and the NZ Government – please feel free to draw your own conclusions…I have: –

18-19 Dec 2020 : The Port Agent notified by Ponant that the NZ DG of Health – MOH has given the vessel approval to enter NZ with conditions. (100 Pax Only, can come for repair/refurb’ and cruise, must apply to Immigration for Crew visas were part of this)

21 Dec 2020: Asked Immigration as part of the Notifications on Process for applying for Crew Visas. – (Note: this was the weekend hence waited till Monday the 21st to ask)

22 Dec 2020 : Received Replies from Immigration with the link to the forms etc (Note: these needed Names and Passport numbers etc for Crew) – over the next few days communicated with ship etc advising them what info was needed.

08 Jan 2021 : Ship confirmed all Crew required for the cruise/voyage scheduled in NZ, have completed Isolation and testing ashore, boarded the ship off Jakarta and application sent.

Same forwarded to MBIE/Immigration. (Note: ship was anchored off Jakarta with skeleton staff and had to fly staff in and isolate and test before boarding for their trip to NZ).

11 Jan 2021: As no confirmations from MBIE/Immigration, just followed up with an email asking if all in order.

12 Jan 21: Received a reply saying they have all the documentation needed.  Replied advising them ship now on the way – as due to time needed for the planned voyage to NZ. MBIE queried this telling us they need to all have visas and I explained why we needed to start coming in – due to the distance to NZ and programmed operations needed for ship to be approved and ready for the voyage due to commence on Feb 8th.  Informed ship/Ponant of same and Captain advised he would come at eco speed.

The Company wanted the ship to arrive earlier to complete PCR tests, get ship cleared through MPI/Biosecurity, hull bottom checked for DOC requirements, fully stock/store with local produce, get repairs /maintenance completed, refuel as would require a full load for NZ Sub Antarctica, source a new nurse (which was done) – 14 local staff employed – including musicians, travel guides, expedition staff etc.

18/19 Jan 2021: Requests for info and was advised of issues with non-essential staff as identified by Immigration, they wanted more on the roles of staff etc.

19 Jan 2021: Replied to our MBIE Business relation adviser with the need for those specific staff onboard. Was advised they were probably going to be rejected – but to wait for it in writing. We then started sending the roles and qualifications needed for these staff on board so MBIE could make an Informed decision.

21st Jan 2021: Was advised to make another application under Critical Purpose Crew Visa – same done on 21st.

22nd Jan 2021: We were sent invitations to apply for the essential Crew.  Which we did – these were being approved on the 26th January and visas  being sent to me, when then abruptly were stopped 27th. We then finally started getting Visas sent through on the 26th for the deemed essential staff.

From then on, was just regular follow ups for updates.

27 Jan 2021 AM: was called into a meeting with NZ Customs in the morning and was advised if we didn’t get all the visas the ship should not cross the 200 NM boundary or they would detain all the crew on arrival in NZ. Ship was approx. 400 NM from NZ.

27 Jan 2021 PM & 28 Jan AM: Then we received news on 27th PM verbally and an email and letter on the 28th AM denying entry and a directive warning us not to come within 200 NM .

The following is a statement issued by Kevin O’Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer, New Zealand Cruise Association last Friday 29 January 2021 related to the Ponant La Laperouse scenario, which some would say debacle that developed at the end of last week.

NZCA is shocked and quite simply bewildered to see that at the very last-minute Immigration NZ has chosen to prevent the Ponant ship Le Laperouse from coming to New Zealand despite having the green light from Health.

The New Zealand government (through the Ministry of Health) granted an exemption last December to permit the ship to operate domestically in New Zealand, carrying a maximum of 100 passengers. At the extremely last minute, Immigration NZ has now denied entry for some of the ship’s crew who they have deemed to be non-essential?

It is a case of one Ministry giving and another taking away. Government departs must begin to talk to each other, not take separate action which once again greatly harms the tourism industry.

The Minister of Immigration has tried to paint the decision as the fault of Ponant for not following procedure, but it is not so.

As soon as the exemption was granted Ponant provided information to Immigration on visa requirements for the ship’s crew, giving ample time for a response and following up with an application when they had assembled the information requested more than three weeks ago.

They did everything that was requested from NZ Government in order to offer safe domestic cruising in New Zealand.

To comply with Covid requirements to isolate crew, the ship has been slow steaming from its last port, testing everyone on board regularly.

Le Laperouse was due in Auckland tomorrow for fuelling, maintenance work and New Zealand Covid testing, with the first voyage beginning 8 February.

This is a significant and devastating blow to the New Zealand tourism industry and to all those businesses that were relying on this one cruise ship to bring them some small glimmer of hope in the resurgence of regional cruise tourism. Of course, the 700 kiwi guests who had planned on enjoying a voyage will be most upset too.

This decision by Immigration tarnishes New Zealand as a cruise friendly destination, undoing years of hard work. It is quite simply not good enough.

Finally this is a commentary provided by Sarina Bratton, Chairperson for PONANT for this region: –

Our COVID-free expedition ship, Le Laperouse is on her way to COVID-free Noumea and is expected to arrive late Monday or Tuesday. We don’t have approval of our application to enter Noumea as yet but hopefully that will be received soon.

The Ministry of Health have not had issue with our extensive COVID plans and were scheduled to visit the ship at anchor in Auckland Harbour today to do PCR testing of all the crew.

PONANT has operated 60 expeditions in numerous jurisdictions around the world during the 2020 COVID period.

Our robust COVID-safe protocols have been well tested and proven.

Our crew have been tested five times over the past 27 days and have been in isolation over this period.

The ship and her crew are COVID-free.

Our NZ port agent is well accustomed to managing all crew visa requirements and commenced the process after our MoH Economic Exemption application was approved mid-December.

Our final crew manifest was sent to the port agent for visa processing on January 8.

We are not able to confirm the full crew manifest to our port agent until after our company’s extensive testing and isolation protocols are finalised.

Clearly all crew need to receive multiple negative test results otherwise they are disembarked before the vessel would undertake the 3 week voyage to NZ.

Visas were approved by INZ for our technical deck and engine crew, but not for our Hotel Department crew, with this information advised only after the ship had travelled over 3,600 nautical miles (18 days) to NZ.

There are strict safety certificates required for all crew working on ships, particularly expedition ships like ours that sail in extreme and remote areas – NZ sub-Antarctic islands, Chatham, Bounty, Antipodes islands as an example.

We have informed INZ that we will try to identify some local NZ citizens who could perform some hotel department roles onboard that we have identified which would not (by exception) have operational safety responsibility within their role.

They would however require to have the appropriate STCW safety certification.

These positions would be in addition to the 14 NZ residents who have already been contracted for the NZ season – naturalists, musicians and a nurse.

We remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement with INZ to allow our ship to deliver the expedition experiences that 700 Kiwis have purchased via their NZ travel agents. Our economic contribution to the NZ economy is significant and there are many small businesses relying on this to be realised, to reduce job losses and provide hope for the future.

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I think that a call between Jacinta Ardern and Sarina Bratton needs to take place!

What do you think?  Let us have your comments below.

A report by John Alwyn-Jones

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