Walk on the wild side: the rise and rise of expedition cruise

Big cruise ship in the Antarctic waters

There is a growing demand for immersive and active holidays in lesser-known destinations and, as Jane Archer discovers, cruise is coming up with the goods.

“People who go to the polar regions are statistically less likely to die than salesmen who drive on the motorways of England.”

This observation, courtesy of the great explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, is none-too-comforting for sales folk but a great message for agents looking to grab a slice of the booming expedition cruise sector.Group of king penguins coming together , mountain background, South Georgia, Wildlife scene from nature. Animal from Antarctica,

With more than 20 new expedition ships on order between now and 2021, the market is certainly growing as never before, but it’s not just the millions of dollars of investment that is notable. As important are the modern features being installed on these vessels – balcony cabins, multiple restaurants and working wi-fi – that will take the sector to a level of luxury never seen before.

That’s because most expedition vessels are either older ships or Russian-built icebreakers. Even Silversea’s four expedition ships, which are currently among the
most luxurious available, are old tonnage refurbished to bring them as close as possible to the cruise line’s luxurious standards.

Their newest expedition ship, Silver Cloud, for instance, was part of the cruise line’s traditional fleet for 24 years but transformed into a luxury ice-class vessel fit for polar exploration at the end of last year.

It is now equipped with kayaks, zodiacs and a photo studio where passengers can learn to edit their pictures. Silversea chairman Manfredi Lefebvre says: “As the first ship in our luxury fleet, it makes sense that she should continue her career as our first vessel to truly bridge the gap between luxury and expedition cruising.”

But stiff competition is on the way from the likes of Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, which is launching a new ship in the Galápagos in 2019 and Scenic, which is building two ice-class ‘discovery yachts’.Galapagos islands

Each will have 10 places to eat, oversized suites with balconies, butlers and private dining, as well as zodiacs for shore landings, and helicopters and submarines for exploration above and below the waves. The first, Scenic Eclipse, launches in September and will be based in Antarctica in winter and the Arctic in summer. It will be followed in 2020 by Scenic Eclipse II, which will sail to the Russian White Sea and take on the Northwest Passage.

French line Ponant is building seven expedition ships – six have a lounge beneath the water line, number seven is an icebreaker due to launch in 2021 that’s powered by Liquefied Natural Gas and able to reach the true North Pole (the nearest standard cruise ships can get is the island of Spitsbergen).

Hurtigruten has two vessels launching in 2019 – Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen – each with onboard science centres, three restaurants and suites with their
own private hot tubs.

New from Hapag-Lloyd Cruises next year, Hanseatic Inspiration will have three restaurants, a Grand Suite with a butler and shower that transforms into a steam room, and glass balconies some 15m above the ocean that can fold up so the ship can pass through locks.

Chief executive officer Karl Pojer says initial inquires for Inspiration – even before any itineraries have been announced – were “very positive”. “The potential in the expedition ship segment is more than three times higher than supply,” he added.

While not exactly bringing expedition cruising into the mainstream – passengers might be on luxurious ships but they will still be visiting remote, often frozen parts of the world a million miles from super-fast internet and air-conditioned coaches – the move upmarket is bound to draw new clients to the expedition cruise market.

Many might be past cruise passengers, but agents also need to target luxury clients used to top hotels and those in search of adventure in places way off the beaten track as a cruise is easily the best way to visit the polar regions or Galápagos.

Male southern elephant seal

Male southern elephant seal

Crystal president and chief executive officer Tom Wolber says: “[Our move] into the expedition cruise industry is a natural response to the demand from an increasing segment of travellers, who are craving more immersive and active experiences in lesser-known destinations around
the world.”

Antarctica, the Arctic, the Northwest Passage and Galápagos are the big-sellers in the expedition cruise market, but, as the number of ships increases, cruise lines are bringing new destinations into the mix. 

Silversea’s Silver Explorer, for instance, is exploring the Russian Far East in June 2019, while Silver Cloud is going in search of rainforests and wildlife on a cruise through Central America in October next year. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has new cruises through the Great Lakes in North America in 2020 – it’s not exactly a remote destination but only just inching onto the cruise map – while Ponant is navigating through the Banda Sea in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia in August 2019.

 

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