Have you ever wondered who is in charge of an expedition fleet? Who is the person who decides that they will take millions of pounds of hardware and sail it into virtually unchartered waters? How much infrastructure does there need to be before a company decides to take its loyal passengers to that destination? Will they even book?
For Silversea Expeditions, that man is Conrad Combrink, who, arguably, has the best job in the world – from scouting out new destinations to deciding what passengers will do when they arrive. We spoke with him about the challenges of operating a luxury expedition line.
Cruise Adviser: What turns a cruise from a traditional sailing into an expedition?
Conrad Combrink: It is how we interpret the destination. An expedition voyage experiences the destination more than a cruise; we do more when we are there. We still focus on the onboard experience – it is a luxury hotel – but we do different things. There can be an overlap, too – but it is what you do while on that holiday that sets it apart. You can use the zodiac to get to a remote castle rather than boarding a bus and taking a half-hour drive. Expedition experiences don’t have just be about remote destinations. We do expedition cruises to the British Isles and the Caribbean, too.
What destinations do you have on your radar right now?
We recently announced a new itinerary that is very exciting: we are going to be the first cruise line ever to visit Bangladesh (see box-out). To make something like that a reality there are a number of steps – first I sit down and do my research, and I loved what I read. Secondly, I go out and see the place myself. I have to be honest, when I first arrived I was disappointed. I was shown the typical sites by some established tour operators. But, luckily for me, I couldn’t cancel my trip and ended up doing something I love – exploring. I went out and found my own way. I visited remote villages that had never had any exposure to tourism before. It was incredible.
How hard is it to get the balance right between new destinations and passenger safety?
You don’t want to be so ambitious that you fail. You have to make sure that you retain the safety of your guest at all times. But visiting many of the destinations that we do within a single itinerary is hard on its own. Take West Africa, for example. If you travel there you need a hotel, but a hotel needs electricity, which needs a generator, which means you also need a mechanic, cars and so on. When infrastructure isn’t in place that can mean it’s surprisingly expensive. What we do with these destinations is make them accessible to the modern traveller. We go to places that Shackleton visited under real hardship. We offer the same destinations to the modern expedition traveller.
What is your favourite destination?
That’s like having to say who your favourite child is! That being said, I would probably choose Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. To walk on beaches untouched by tourism is something very special. It is one of the best cultural experiences you can ever have. It is life changing. In Vanuatu, we take people ashore – onto the beach by zodiacs and then 45 minutes by pick-up truck up a volcano, which is one of the most active in the world. You can see the lava churning and hear the volcano roar as the sunsets. These are the kind of experiences we can provide on an expedition vessel.
Some conservationists say ships should not be visiting Antarctica. What would you say to them
The area we visit in Antarctica is so small that we do not have a lasting impact. We are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and, as a responsible tour operator have helped develop best responsible practice. I can guarantee you that every member of IAATO wants Antarctica to remain untouched so we ensure that we have a transient impact on the area. It’s worth noting that tourism creates an awareness of these areas, too, which allows us to lobby governments, which otherwise would have a free-for-all and exploit the region. Tourism, when done properly, has a very good impact on places like Antarctica, the Arctic, Papa New Guinea and Bangladesh. We benefit the area financially but also help bring in things such as school supplies.
What do you envisage the future holding for Silversea Expeditions?
We have expanded a lot over the last couple of years. Once we have Silver Cloud that will mean a fleet of four ships – with the Silver Discoverer, Silver Galapagos and Silver Explorer. Do we have further plans for expansion? Not right now, but I firmly believe in the future of expedition travel.