SARINA Bratton’s expedition into the bureaucratic wilderness

As one of Australia’s expedition cruising pioneers, Sarina Bratton is well-accustomed to exploring unfamiliar landscapes. She has launched two cruise lines in Australia, pioneering the sector with a passion to discover new worlds and take her passengers along for the ride. However over the last 12 months she has been encountering new frontiers of a different type, in a dogged battle with bureaucracies on both sides of the Tasman as she attempted to find a way forward for a cruise restart in the COVID-19 world where we find ourselves. Bruce Piper investigates.

A year into the pandemic, everyone in the travel industry has learnt many hard lessons. We’ve learnt how to subsist on massively reduced income, how to deal with unemployment, redundancies, negotiating over leases, refunds, credits and more. But one of the main things that Sarina Bratton has quickly learnt is “that I would never want to be a politician or a professional lobbyist”. Despite that, she has been a tireless advocate for the restart of the cruise sector, at least twice getting tantalisingly close to facilitating recommencements in Australia and New Zealand. But it’s been quite a journey, and unfortunately it’s not over just yet.

Bratton spoke to travelBulletin about her experiences over the last year, as she has relentlessly continued to advocate for the industry. Her long battle has involved a huge amount of tireless work behind the scenes, navigating the intricacies of national and state bureaucracies, with much learning about “the risk averse nature of Governments and, oftentime, political ideology getting in the way of reality”.

Sarina Bratton

Despite the situation in 2020 being unprecedented, Bratton is perhaps one of the best people to have had working on this problem, being no stranger to the intricacies of approvals required to get cruising going. She first came to prominence in the sector as far back as 1997 with the launch of Norwegian Capricorn Line locally – a venture which was ultimately short-lived due to changes in the ownership of its parent company. That experience only whetted her appetite, with Bratton back four years later in 2004 with the launch of Orion Expedition Cruises, bringing Australia’s unique remote landscapes – as well as other regional destinations – within reach of cruisers from across the globe.

Orion ultimately became part of Lindblad Expeditions in 2013, with Bratton selling her stake and then joining Ponant as its Asia-Pacific Chair at the end of that same year. She’s played a key role with the French cruise line in internationalising its market, riding a wave of massive expansion which has seen the Ponant fleet grow fourfold to now comprise 12 vessels. But helping the line’s billionaire owners to grow the business over the previous six years was clearly nothing compared to the challenges wrought by COVID-19.

The story so far…

As coronavirus closed in and the World Health Organization declared it to be a pandemic, Ponant had its ships all over the world. Like the rest of the travel and cruise industry, the major issue initially was repatriation of guests, so the company started to return all vessels to port and disembark passengers before borders were closed — and then get the airlines that were still flying to deliver them to their home countries.

At the time there were some local deployments under way, including Le Laperouse which was operating in New Zealand. In a perhaps uncharacteristically tolerant move, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that vessels sailing in Kiwi waters were allowed to complete their current itinerary — but observing the rapid escalation of the pandemic and border closures in other parts of the world, Ponant decided to immediately stop the sailing. Guests were disembarked in Wellington to enable them to board commercial flights home to the USA, Europe and Australia before the airlines stopped flying.

“We received some media flak over this decision, given Prime Minister Ardern’s agreement for cruise ships to continue with their itineraries,” Bratton told travelBulletin. “But in hindsight, many people and particularly our guests realised that our quick actions resulted in the best outcomes.” Ponant also persevered with cruising in Europe for some months, launching a range of domestic itineraries with strict protocols. However the winter upsurge of COVID-19 put paid to that. “We decided to stop operating as it became too difficult to establish and manage the ‘bubble’ on our ships,” Bratton lamented.

Once the immediate issues were dealt with in terms of repatriations, the Ponant chief broke out her little black book.

After her long experience in the industry, she has many contacts. “I quickly identified those people whom I knew personally and who were in a position to assist, guide and/or influence. I owe a lot of drinks to a lot of people!” she said. Something else that happened in those early days of the pandemic was the formation of the Tourism Restart Taskforce, a high-powered group established by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to provide advice on the short-, medium- and long-term priorities required to rebuild the sector. Bratton joined up to represent the cruise sector, alongside other luminaries such as Flight Centre’s Skroo Turner, Jacqui Walshe from The Walshe Group, Tourism Australia Chairman Bob East, Denis Pierce representing the Australian Tourism Export Council, and Geoff Donaghy, head of Sydney’s International Convention Centre.

Bratton’s participation in the Taskforce meant that cruise — particularly expedition cruise — had a seat at the table, and perhaps an elevated entree to government. But she’s adamant that she was just one of many people in cruise who were engaging with officialdom.

“The majors have established lobbyists, and Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) was engaging with government departments where possible,” Bratton noted. However a key issue was that in those early stages, with heavily negative mainstream media coverage of various outbreaks, cruise was a very dirty word.

“The Tourism Restart Taskforce has been incredibly valuable because it did provide opportunity to engage with government and peers from the different sectors of the tourism industry,” she said.

But more than that, “importantly it also helped me to personally get a realistic view as to just where our industry was sitting in terms of priority in the overall tourism sector, the perceived importance of our sector of the industry, and what support — if any — we could expect from the Government.”

“The outlook was grim,” she concluded.

So close, and yet so far…

Undaunted by the seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing the sector, Bratton pressed on. As the pandemic unfolded it became increasingly clear that domestic cruising would be the only option on the table — but that was also heavily complicated by the divergent approaches being taken by various Australian states. With the Kimberley being a key part of Bratton’s industry experience, and strong demand for local itineraries, Western Australia became a focus, and it appears to have come within a hair’s breadth of success.

“We tried so hard, got the right support and got so close in the second quarter of 2020 to getting our ship operating intrastate ‘bubble expeditions’ in WA, for West Australians only,” she revealed. “This would have been a significant breakthrough, and I was singularly focused on getting the expedition sector recognised, as a safe starting point for government.”

Ponant has been very close to getting a Kimberley season started ©Ponant / Nick Rains

Despite ultimately being unsuccessful, the WA experience was instrumental in getting better understanding and appreciation of what the expedition sector could do at various government levels — at least in Australia. And that experience appeared to be bearing fruit across the Tasman just before Christmas, when the industry was elated to hear that the New Zealand Ministry of Health had granted approval for a February domestic cruise season. travelBulletin readers reacted with joy at the 23 December announcement, with a number saying that after a torrid year it was “the best present they could have received”.

The program was set to commence on 08 February, with Le Laperouse to operate exclusively in New Zealand waters, carrying only NZ passengers. The company noted that “permission to operate the program follows months of intensive engagement with the NZ Ministry of Health”. Demand was huge, with the seven-voyage season quickly selling out, providing a much welcome stimulus to the languishing Kiwi tourism and travel sector. Le Laperouse, which at the time was located near Jakarta, began steaming towards New Zealand, with its crew undergoing regular COVID-19 testing in accordance with exhaustive protocols agreed with Kiwi officialdom.

However on 28 January, after travelling 4,000 nautical miles, and just two days before NZ Health Protection officers were due to test all crew upon arrival in Auckland, Ponant was advised that the NZ Immigration Department would not issue visas for the 61 hotel crew on board. In a Yes Minister-style flurry of paper shuffling, it suddenly became apparent to Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi that those on board included “hairdressers, bartenders and masseuses” — jobs which he thought could be better done by New Zealanders, with those roles “not considered critical to the ship’s entry”. That’s despite the crew also being trained in safety procedures and those all-important COVID-19 protocols, and the fact that 14 Kiwis had been engaged as expedition guides, musicians and an onboard nurse.

La Laperouse’s journey from Jakarta and approximate position when the ship was denied entry to New Zealand.

The ship was ordered not to enter New Zealand waters, on threats of arrest for the crew and Ponant management — and being low on fuel, diverted to New Caledonia as last ditch attempts were made to salvage the situation. Those efforts included a rapid recruitment program in hopes of satisfying Faafoi’s last-minute demands, but travelBulletin understands that after widely advertising for the 61 roles, just 16 applications were received, 14 of them from people with no hospitality experience, and none at all holding the requisite safety training certificates. With inbound tourism being such a vital part of the NZ economy, it might have been expected that the country’s Tourism Minister Stuart Nash would have some input, but he declined to respond to questions about the issue from travelBulletin, instead just noting that “the Government spokesperson on this is the Minister of Immigration”.

Having exhausted every option, Ponant was forced to pull the pin, leading to the cancellation of seven voyages, the loss of millions of dollars in direct economic spending, and creating massive uncertainty for the future of the sector and its huge array of suppliers across New Zealand. Bratton, whose early career included a stint as an elite high diver (she actually holds Australian medals in Springboard and Platform Diving, Trampolining and Gymnastics), said: “I’ve never been knocked down in a boxing ring, however I have had good experience in diving…not always perfectly. I felt like I had been pushed off the 10 metre tower and landed flat on my back. That hurts intensely. The best thing you can do is check that you haven’t broken anything, talk to your coach, regroup, walk back to the base of the tower and slowly make your way up to the top again.”

Will Ponant return to New Zealand? Bratton is surprisingly sanguine about prospects for deployments going forward, saying NZ is definitely still part of the plan for future years. But “in the short term, I am more concerned about the damage that NZ has done to themselves with the global cruising community. We need a whole-of-industry approach to the NZ Government to establish a clear consultation process and map a way forward,” she said. And given the Government’s current attitude, “I’m very concerned about whether there will be a 2021/22 season operating”.

An image from Ponant’s brochure spruiking New Zealand itineraries ©Studio PONANT / Nathalie Michel

It hasn’t been universally bad. “While our unexpected experience with the Immigration Department was painful, we had built good and respectful relationships within the Ministry of Health and Maritime NZ. These continue,” Bratton noted. However “the Immigration Department’s current processes do not work for the cruise industry. Unless these are changed, it will be difficult for the industry to resume activity in the country.”

Hope on the horizon…

With New Zealand off the agenda, Bratton is clearly optimistic about a changed sentiment around cruising in Australia, and Ponant has released a significantly expanded domestic program for sale. “We know there is support in different governments for expedition cruising to resume. It is perceived as a more scalable and manageable starting point. The high-yielding nature of the business is meaningful to destinations, despite small passenger numbers,” she said.

“I feel we will be successful in getting a Kimberley season operating. There may be a delay in getting it started, however the support we have received from certain governments has been very encouraging. If we can pave the way, then this will open up opportunity for the industry.” CLIA and other stakeholders, including Ponant, have been working closely with the Federal Department of Health on a Framework for the Resumption of Cruising, she confirmed. “This staged approach will allow the states and territory to make independent decisions on the scale of operations that they are comfortable to support, with very strict health protocols and risk mitigation.”

Bratton also paid tribute to colleagues across the industry, saying that contrary to some perceptions that she was leading a one-woman crusade, there were many others by her side. “As I said previously, I owe a lot of people a lot of drinks in gratitude for their help. CLIA and Joel Katz have been very supportive, likewise Kevin O’Sullivan and the NZ Cruise Association, and Aaron Russ, owner of Wild Earth Travel who had three charters with us. The various tourism bodies that we have worked with have been exceptional. The NZ trade and our suppliers — everyone engaged in and benefitting from our business has been behind us, urging us to keep going.”

The high-yielding nature of expedition cruising makes it very attractive to destinations, despite small passenger numbers ©Ponant / Nick Rains

There have also been some silver linings — in particular the upcoming deployment of two Ponant ships in local waters. “I’ve been advocating for two ships in Asia-Pacific for some time now,” Bratton said. “COVID did us a favour in realising that.” Not only that, despite the New Zealand debacle, the experience has seen Ponant recognise that it is able to create exciting itineraries in NZ that appeal to local cruisers — in contrast to international guests who generally prefer more mainstream ports. New Zealand is definitely still part of Ponant’s aspirations — “with 12 expedition ships covering the globe, we want to be in NZ and share the country’s beauty with many,” she said.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, it is clear that Bratton is a formidable force of persistence who is determined to see the battle through. “Cruising, and especially expedition cruising, is in my blood,” she said. “We need to win this current battle and get our industry operational again. Our trade partners, our suppliers, our guests are all relying on us,” Bratton noted.

“Once we get cruise restarted, I’ll start to concentrate on my golf again.”

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