MELBOURNE, AAP – While industries around the world have suffered during the pandemic, few have been hit harder than the cruise line sector which is celebrating its long-awaited return to Sydney harbour.

On Monday, luxury cruise ship Pacific Explorer became the first to return to Australian shores since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the industry to a standstill in March 2020.

The suspension cost the Australian economy more than $10 billion during that time, according to Cruise Lines International Association, with businesses including travel agents, caterers, tour operators and hospitality and transport providers all impacted.

Foodservice Suppliers Association Australia chief executive Vince Crawley said the return of cruising would flow right through the economy.

“Clearly they’ve gone through a tough few years, so any return to normal is important for food service and the supply chain,” Mr Crawley told AAP.

He said cafes, restaurants and other hospitality venues would benefit, as would local suppliers.

It is unclear, however, how fast the rebound might take, with tourism operators previously being felled by virus outbreaks and general travel hesitancy.

Melbourne-resident Caroline O’Neill told AAP that she had her first-ever cruise booked at the start of the pandemic. That trip was cancelled as were two subsequent reschedules.

“I wouldn’t go now while the pandemic is still going … I’d like to see how it goes over the next six to 12 months,” she said.

“I’d like to go, but it’s too scary.”

Ms O’Neill said she feared being stranded on a ship during an outbreak, or being exposed in a new wave of the virus, much like what happened to those on the Ruby Princess at the start of the pandemic.

The Ruby Princess has been linked to 28 coronavirus deaths and hundreds of cases, with a NSW inquiry laying most of the blame on health authorities for allowing infected passengers to leave the ship. Weeks earlier, the Diamond Princess made international headlines after being forced to quarantine off the coast of Japan for two weeks due to infections on board.

On Monday, the $400 million Pacific Explorer, which has capacity for almost 2000 passengers, arrived in Sydney to a ceremonial water cannon salute following a 28-day voyage from Europe, where it has been anchored for most of the past two years.

Before the pandemic, as many as 350 cruise ships travelled to Australia each year carrying more than 600,000 passengers.

Joel Katz, the Australasia managing director for the Cruise Lines International Association, said an enormous amount of work had been done with medical experts to ensure the safety of guests and 18,000 Australians whose livelihoods depend on cruise tourism.