The first image of a pair of ocean liners that will carry passengers between Britain and Australia were released this week by French ship-building company STX France.
The initial design concept is seen as a significant milestone for Project Orient, the company behind the proposed Southampton to Sydney service. The liners are expected to weigh 70,000 grt and carry 1,600 passengers and 800 crew.
Last year approximately 98 per cent of British visitors to Australia arrived by air. Investors hope to reignite demand for a less harried means of travel between the two continents while capturing a share of the lucrative “kangaroo route” – there are some 1.5 million single flights between Britain and Australia each year – and offer an alternative for those time-rich travellers on both continents for whom the minimum 21-hour flight acts as a deterrent to making the journey at all. One-way fares are expected to start from around £2,000 ($3,182).
“We are targeting two per cent of that market at little more than the cost of a one-way business-class airfare,” said operations director Nigel Lingard.
Travelling via two or three primary routes – east via South Africa and the Suez Canal or west via The Panama Canal, depending on the time of year, the journey to Australia’s west coast is expected to take 25 days, plus an additional three to Sydney.
Denise Von Wald of Tourism Australia said cruising to Australia offers a “rare and epic adventure” and an opportunity to retrace historic footsteps.
“It’s a chance to relive the romance, relaxation, comfort and style of the great ocean liners that traditionally sailed [the route]. We know that cruising is a booming sector internationally and that the UK is one of the top international cruise markets for Australia.”
P&O Orient Lines (formed after a merger between P&O and Orient Line after WW2) led a fleet of ships between Britain and Australia that offered a “ten-pound pom” assisted passage scheme which encouraged British migrants to settle in Australia throughout the 1960s until 1974. The two companies’ flagships Canberra and Oriana were the largest and fastest ships built for this route; at full throttle they could reduce the journey time between the two continents to three weeks.
In the past port calls were dictated by government mail contracts and the need to pick up coal and supplies. New routes will be in part determined by investor sponsorship. “We are currently talking to potential investors in the Middle East,” said Lingard. “In this climate it is likely that plans will be adapted to include any port that provides funding.”
Operating a monthly service on the first week of each month and stopping only to pick up and drop off passengers, allowing for a day in port, the new voyage does not set out to emulate the cruising experience. “It’s a journey, not a cruise. It will offer an alternative for those who want to visit Australia but who for whatever reason can’t or prefer not to fly there.”
Passengers will also be able to book sectors of the voyage, an important part of the plan, particularly in key cities like Cape Town or Singapore, combinable with air travel.
Many of the on-board trappings will be familiar to regular cruisers however, with much emphasis placed on enrichment, the on-board learning and activities programmes that keep cruise-goers busy on sea days. Along with a gym and spa and extensive library and e-library, accessible via the ship’s Wi-Fi there will be multiple restaurants and extensive shopping.
The project is the brainchild of former P&O employee Larry Sylvestre and is being spearheaded by CEO and entrepreneur Asif Mashhadi along with several former British cruise-industry heavyweights at the helm. With no launch date in sight Lingard remains optimistic: “If we could finalise finance this winter STX could be cutting steel during 2014 for an early 2016 start-up.”