Farewell P&O Cruises Australia: how to honour a legacy of more than 90 years

Former Carnival Corporation Corporate Communications Manager DAVID JONES reflects on the best way to say goodbye to one of the companies which built Australia.

How do you farewell an iconic shipping line after more than 90 years of cruising from Australia?

Do you do it  with great solemnity, like the cowboy song lyric, “beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly, as you carry me along”? Or do you do it in a corporate way, with bells and whistles, and marketing messages, combined with heaps of self-serving spin?

When it comes to giving P&O Cruises Australia its big goodbye, the answer is somewhere in the middle: laced with a good dose of humility, and recognising the loyal passengers and the devoted employees, shipboard and shoreside, who gave the line its magic; but funereal it should never be.

To begin with, recognise the decision to eliminate P&O Australia has caused deep hurt. Some of its most talented will be lost. So many feel their life’s work has been lost. Read the social media posts to understand the depths of their emotion.

I have been out of the industry for 18 months but my reaction to the P&O news was visceral. I was incandescent for the first 24 hours before sober reflection surfaced. I can only imagine the feelings of former colleagues.

Having an appreciation of history certainly helped to achieve a more nuanced view of the decision to close P&O, which as maritime historian Chris Frame pointed out, was sending ships to our shores well before Australia was even born as a nation.

It must be acknowledged Carnival Corporation, whose Miami-based head office lowered the boom on P&O, actually gave the line — and many other famous cruise brands — an unexpected new life after they had fallen on hard times, particularly as airlines came to dominate international travel. Carnival scooped up famous brands such as Cunard Line and Holland America Line that came with stellar heritages on a par with P&O’s, but were but a shadow of their golden era. It gave P&O a life it would not otherwise have had to lead the resurgence of contemporary cruising in our region.

Carnival’s genius was to allow these lines to retain their unique personalities and heritage. It is why passengers on a Cunard voyage still feel they are enjoying the “best of British”, and why Holland America has retained elements of its Dutch heritage.

P&O was built on the powerful legacy of sailing to Australia during the Great Depression, two world wars, through pandemics, and, in an even greater emotional connection, carried many thousands of post-war immigrants to our country in the assisted passage scheme. The cruising years under Carnival ownership were but a blink of the eye in the broad sweep of P&O’s history.

The best way to mark P&O’s “sunset”? Celebrate and remember the entire P&O history and its connection to the South Pacific. To recall the more recent years, concentrate on the people — passengers, shoreside staff, crew members, and destinations who made the magic happen.

Here’s an idea — set cabins aside on the final cruise for the P&O diehards who sailed umpteen cruises and representatives from the cruise destinations, in particular drawn from communities in the Pacific Islands, who welcomed P&O and its passengers to their island homes. Let’s have less emphasis on brand, marketing and corporate messaging that the best of local cruising is yet to come under another brand.

A corporation cancelled P&O, but it didn’t grow the much loved cruise line that became the pioneer of an incredible local industry. P&O people, passengers, suppliers, and destination communities did that, so let’s doff our caps to them.

David Jones was Carnival Corporation corporate communications manager from 2009 to 2022.

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