SARS sets cruise ships adrift
By Geoff Hiscock, CNN Asia Business Editor
SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Star Cruises has confirmed it is relocating two of its biggest cruise liners to Australia because of the downturn in Asian passenger numbers caused by the SARS illness.
Malaysia-based Star Cruises runs 20 liners out of Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.
Chief operating officer Chong Chee Tut said the company faced difficult conditions in its core Asian markets, and so was redeploying the ships to "non-affected SARS countries".
The SuperStar Leo, which has been based in Hong Kong since 1998, will now operate from Sydney. It will first dock in the northern Australian port of Cairns on April 24 before cruising down the Australian east coast.
From early May, it will run regular cruises out of Sydney to the South Pacific.
The SuperStar Virgo, based in Singapore since 1999, is moving to Perth in Western Australia. It will cruise along the northwestern coast and across to Adelaide and Melbourne.
Star Cruises said the two 77,000-tonne ships initially would be based in Australia for one to three months to evaluate their viability. Travellers from the United States, U.K., New Zealand and Asia would be targeted.
The relocation follows the cancellation earlier this week of the two ships' Asian itineraries. That came after many passengers cancelled bookings because of their fear of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, which has swept across Asia in recent weeks.
So far, more than 160 people have died from the flu-like illness, while more than 3,000 have contracted it, according to the World Health Organization.
Most of the deaths have occurred in China and Hong Kong. The disease is thought to have originated in Guangdong, the south China province that adjoins Hong Kong.
Star Cruises said on Monday that two SuperStar Virgo crew members admitted to hospital in Malaysia as "probable SARS" cases in early April had now been discharged.
Tourist industry analysts say the relocation will give a boost to the Australian tourism scene, which has suffered its own share of cancellations from overseas visitors because of SARS.
The 2000-passenger SuperStar ships are among the world's largest and fastest cruise ships. For Star Cruises, the relocation to Australia offers a chance to recover from the business downturn that has pushed its share price to record lows in Singapore this week.
Its shares are 3 percent higher at S$0.165 in early Singapore trade Thursday, after falling to just $0.155 on Wednesday. They are down more than 40 percent so far this year.
Star Cruises is controlled by Malaysia's Resorts World, part of the Genting group founded by billionaire Lim Goh Tong.