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Onboard - Tourism Operator's Handbook for the Great Barrier Reef

Cruise Ships

cruise ship

Cruise ships visit the Marine Park to allow passengers to experience the scenic beauty of this unique World Heritage Area through onboard sightseeing, calls to coastal towns and cities and activities with other tourism operators.

As well as providing for a sheltered passage along the north-eastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef offers a new and different experience for cruise ship passengers. This is reflected in steady growth in the number of cruise ship calls to anchorages and coastal destinations along the Queensland coast.

If you are planning a cruise ship operation to the Great Barrier Reef, please take the time to fully understand some important management arrangements.

What do I need to know?

When you conduct a cruise operation in the Marine Park, you need to know about:

  • Marine Parks permits, how you apply, how much they cost and your responsibilities as a permittee.
  • Management arrangements for where you go, especially zoning requirements.
  • Special management arrangements for the Cairns, Hinchinbrook and Whitsunday Planning Areas, including anchoring arrangements, significant bird sites and Sensitive Locations.
  • The Environmental Management Charge, how much your clients must pay, who is exempt from paying and your responsibilities to collect, record and remit the charge.
  • How you can operate to high standards in the Marine Park and help keep the Great Barrier Reef great.

What does my permit allow?

Your permit is your fundamental entry pass to the Marine Park. You should make sure you know your permit conditions.

The features of a cruise ship operation permit generally are:

  • Ability to conduct a tourist program in the Marine Park using a vessel greater than 70 metres.
  • Everyday access to most of the Marine Park through access for your ship to the General Use (light blue) Zone and Shipping Areas. These areas are shown on zoning maps.
  • Anchoring throughout the General Use (light blue) Zone and Shipping Areas, plus at a network of cruise ship anchorages, with a booking.
  • Ability to access other zones when transiting to and from or anchoring at a cruise ship anchorage.
  • Operation always beyond 500 metres of a reef or coastline except when transiting to and from or anchoring at a cruise ship anchorage.
  • Up to 50 days a year access in the Cairns Planning Area with a booking. Please check your permit to see if you are endorsed for greater access.
  • Access to the Hinchinbrook Planning Area with a booking. Only one cruise ship booking per day. If more than 12 bookings are made to the Area in a year, management agencies , in collaboration with industry, will review this use.
  • Up to 50 days a year access in the Whitsunday Planning Area with a booking. There is a maximum of 3 cruise ships each day in the Whitsundays.

When applying for a permit, please clearly explain your proposed itinerary and activities to ensure that an appropriate permit is issued.

Can I use my tender for tourism activities?

You can generally use your tender for additional tourist activities such as snorkelling and SCUBA diving if these activities are listed on your permit. Such a permit will also allow tender access to the other zones of Habitat Protection (dark blue), Conservation Park (yellow), Buffer Zone (olive green), Marine National Park (green) and Scientific Research Zone (orange). Your tender must remain within 3 nautical miles of your ship while conducting these additional activities.

When operating in the Whitsunday or Hinchinbrook Planning Areas, or at the Low Island Locality and Green Island Reef Localities 1, 2 and 3 of the Cairns Planning Area, tenders may only be used to transfer passengers to resorts, other vessels or reef pontoons.

What are Compulsory Pilotage Areas?

To provide safer navigation through the Great Barrier Reef waters, cruise ships are required under Commonwealth law to carry a licensed pilot in designated compulsory pilotage areas. Penalties exist for both the master and the owner of the ship if not obeyed. The compulsory pilotage areas are:

  • The inner route of the Great Barrier Reef Region bounded by the northern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Region, latitude 16°39.91'S, the Australian mainland and the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Hydrographer's Passage.
  • The Whitsundays compulsory pilotage area.

What is the ReefVTS?

All vessels with an overall length of 50 metres or greater, and specialised product carriers or ships under tow, are required to participate in the Coastal Vessel Traffic Service (ReefVTS). This service provides ships with shipping traffic information, navigational assistance and maritime safety information to aid on-board decision making. Contact the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Maritime Safety Queensland for more details.

How can I help protect the Reef

Whenever you are operating in the Marine Park, you can help protect the Reef by following the responsible reef practices for your activities.

© Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority