End of an era as P&O Cruises sails into the sunset

Veteran journalist and cruising aficionado DAVID JONES fondly looks back at what the end of P&O Cruises Australia means to him.

There was always something special about P&O ships with their beautiful white hulls and stately lines.

As a cadet reporter on the Sydney Sun in the 1960s, with the august title of shipping roundsman, I would travel out to the Heads on the port agent’s launch at dawn to climb on board Oriana, Himalaya and Chusan to go looking for stories.

Fast forward to 2007 and all of those P&O memories came flooding back in spectacular fashion as I took a ferry home from work one night. Under a full moon on a crystal clear night, P&O Cruises Australia’s Pacific Dawn was preparing to sail under the Harbour Bridge. To say it was awesome and magical would be an understatement. It was magnificent.

Telling the story of cruising myself

Within two years I would be working at Carnival Australia in a communications role that would lead to bigger things. It quickly became apparent I was working with some very special people. Ask for help with something and the standard response from my new colleagues was, “How soon do you want it?” You see, so many of the team had previously worked on the ships where a passenger’s wish was their command.

In 2007, Ann Sherry took the helm as Carnival Australia CEO. An inspirational leader, Ann had set a course to make P&O Cruises Australia the foundation of a resurgent Australian cruise industry.

P&O had two great things going for it. Its proud history and Ann Sherry’s ambitious goal for growth. The back story gave P&O a peerless recognition factor in Australia — brand awareness of epic proportions. Australia’s first ever cruise began when Strathaird departed from Sydney in 1932 on a seven-night voyage to Brisbane and Norfolk Island. But the P&O back story went even further than that. In 1852, P&O’s Chusan arrived in Sydney, touching off a week of celebrations. The old sandstone P&O wharf and warehouse are still down there near Barangaroo.

Ann’s growth ambition connected it all together. A supercharged P&O, along with ships from other Carnival Australia brands, she predicted would see a million Australians cruising by 2020. Some thought Ann had taken leave of her senses. No one was saying that when the million passengers goal was achieved five years early.

The P&O fleet continued to expand. Pacific Jewel and Pacific Pearl joined Pacific Dawn. By 2015 there were five ships in the fleet and who could forget the five-ship spectacular off Sydney. The ships weren’t exactly pristinely new but Aussies loved them. They were distinctly Australian to their nautical “bootstraps”.

It is beyond question that the P&O growth story was the catalyst for Australia becoming the world’s most successful cruise region with market penetration that surpassed traditional markets in the Northern Hemisphere.

Other Carnival brands and competitors sent their ships to enjoy a bit of that cruising gold dust down under. They were heady times. If you were at P&O, you knew you had been part of building a cruise line virtually from scratch albeit with a storied pedigree.

Dark days brought by a pandemic

And then the pandemic turned up. It’s almost a cliche to say life changed forever but, for cruising, it did. No ships, no cruises, no passengers, no business and, for a long time, no prospect of getting back.

Carnival Corporation and Carnival Australia were exemplary in the way they handled this existential threat to their business. Here and across international regions, jobs were safeguarded and ways and means were found to get all of the seafarers home — a huge logistical exercise with an immense degree of difficulty.

The “how soon do you want it” prevailed in even the most difficult of circumstances. When it comes to corporate leadership, I have two personal heroes from that time. Carnival Corporation President and CEO Arnold Donald who stood by his people. And Carnival Australia CEO Sture Myrmell who did the same here.

And now, the end of P&O

So, this brings us to this week’s seismic announcement, the phasing out of the grand P&O brand. When, in April 2022, Pacific Explorer became the first cruise ship to sail back into Sydney Harbour with the giant “WE’RE HOME” sign stretched across its bow, it was also a P&O homecoming.

I am no longer privy to the in-house discussions that led to the decision announced this week. So this is a layman’s view and that of someone who loves the P&O brand and ships dating back to the 1960s.

Real life is sometimes different to how we would like it to be. The reality of this story is that cruising was saved internationally and here in Australia on the back of massive borrowing to keep it afloat until the ships could sail again.

In this environment and in spite of an immensely successful restart every dollar in every market has counted and, if ours was a high cost market with high operating fees and charges, there surely would be consequences. And it seems there were.

Irrespective of why and how it happened, my heart goes out to the P&O team — on ship and shore — who built a cruise line and gave it a distinctly Australian personality. For them and for all those guests who ever took a photo of a P&O ship those images will be the stuff of legend and memories of a cruise line that was theirs.

In my 13 years in the business, my “holy grail” was to find — though I never did — a photo of Strathaird departing Sydney on that first P&O cruise on December 23, 1932. Forgive me if I don’t choose to photograph the last P&O cruise from Sydney. That would be just too sad.

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