Efforts to revive the SARS-battered tourism industry in Asia received a boost when the cruise ship SuperStar Virgo returned to its homeport in Singapore from Australia where it was sent at the height of the epidemic.
The return of the 76,800-tonne liner on Sunday will be followed by that of its sister ship SuperStar Leo when it sails to its Hong Kong homeport at the end of the month.
Both ships, which can carry up to 2,000 passengers each, were relocated to Australia in April by Malaysian owner Star Cruises as the region battled to contain the SARS outbreak.
"As SARS subsides in Hong Kong, Singapore and regionally in Asia, I believe that the ships' return will provide a bright spark to ignite the cruise tourism industry which has been in inertia for the last three months," said Chong Chee Tut, Star Cruises' chief operating officer.
"While it has been a very trying period for all of us, we are confident that the cruise and tourism industry will pick up again," he said.
The world's third biggest cruise operator spared no expenses to welcome home SuperStar Virgo. More than 200 guests gave a rousing welcome at the Singapore Cruise Center.
The hulking white ship and its 600 passengers from Australia were greeted with loud cheers and drum beatings accompanying a Chinese lion dance.
"We are all very happy as you can see," Star Cruises' general manager Michael Goh said.
"In fact, we are very excited about the return of the ship definitely and we are also very confident about the market," he said on board the SuperStar Virgo.
"Although we have seen good recovery, we believe that in the very near future, the business is going to get better," he said.
"Obviously for the domestic market [Singapore], we see very strong rebound for cruise holidays and obviously we are very confident that for the international travellers, the rebound will actually be back very soon," Goh said.
Star Cruises suffered a US$2.2 million loss in the first quarter to March and had warned the SARS crisis would "impact negatively the profitability of the group in the second quarter."
"However, with the disease slowly coming under control in Hong Kong and Singapore, it is expected the two core markets will slowly return after the second quarter," the cruise operator said.
The 980-cabin SuperStar Virgo, which has 13 decks and is equipped with a golf driving range, movie theater, card and mahjong rooms, disco, karaoke rooms and swimming pools, sails to destinations including Phuket, Thailand and Langkawi, Malaysia.
The ship's return is a triumph for Singapore which has earned international praise for imposing some of the world's toughest measures to contain SARS.
"Her return to Singapore is important as it reaffirms the confidence in Singapore post SARS as a key cruise hub," said Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Lim Neo Chian.