Expedition cruises have come a long way from bunk accommodations on old Russian ships, with a growing fleet of luxury vessels presenting lucrative opportunities for travel advisors. It's especially so for those looking for unique holiday solutions for their well-heeled customers.
Appealing to a broader audience than ever before, expedition cruises and their growing fleet of luxury vessels are opening up new experiences for travelers and sales opportunities for travel advisors.
Cruise Lines International Association figures show cruises to Antarctica, the Arctic, Galapagos, and Greenland grew by almost a third between 2017 and 2018, reaching 148,000 passengers.
While the growth is impressive, Ben Lyons, chief executive officer of industry analyst Expedition Voyage Consultants, told Skift the actual numbers are still small in comparison to the rest of the cruise industry.
“All the new expedition ships coming online in the next several years don’t even equate to one new conventional mega cruise ship,” he said.
Lyons added, however, that the options are growing fast, not only from dedicated expedition operators, but also “as more expedition elements creep into everyday cruising.”
Seabourn and Tauck
Among those operators looking for growth in the expedition market is ultra-luxury cruise operator Seabourn Cruise Line, which currently has four of its five vessels allocated to expedition-style travel.
Robin West, vice president of expedition operations for Seabourn, said the line has capacity to serve more than 20,000 guests a year on its Ventures cruises in Alaska/British Columbia, Northern Europe, Australia/New Zealand, and its dedicated Antarctica program.
“Seabourn has contracted this year to build two ultra-luxury purpose-built expedition ships, with the first launching in June 2021 and the second in May 2022,” he said.
Tauck River & Small Ship Cruising, a division of the luxury Tauck tour company, has increased its expedition cruise itineraries by 50 percent since 2017, according to Katharine Bonner, senior vice president.
“Our typical expedition cruise passenger is an experienced world traveler, affluent, and someone who craves personal enrichment,” she said. “They consider travel to be an opportunity for self-enhancement and a way to discover and engage in the world, rather an escape from it.”
A Broader Demographic
Andrew Castles, general manager of Expedition Cruise Specialists in Cairns, Australia, sees expedition cruising as “now 100 percent mainstream.”
“A lot of travelers used to envisage the concept of an expedition cruise as being a bit out of the ordinary, even scary,” he said. “These days expedition cruising has a lot of cachet and is even a status symbol for some travelers.”
Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations in Truckee, California, said his company, which specializes in expedition cruises and other types of adventure travel, has enjoyed 150 percent annual growth over the past five years. While much of his clientele is over 40, he’s also seeing increased interest among younger travelers, including women booking solo trips to Antarctica.
Maureen Gordon, co-owner of Canadian small ship cruise operator Maple Leaf Adventures, said she is seeing increased business from upscale travelers and “people who are ‘soft adventure’ travelers.”
Colby Goodman, director of sales and marketing of International Expeditions, an expedition specialist based in Helena, Alabama, also noted that the market for expedition cruising is expanding in scope.
“We’ve seen the typical traveler on our programs transform from serious birders and biology post-doctoral students to a combination of nature enthusiasts, bucket-listers, curious families, and those who simply want more from their travels than a fruity drink on the beach,” he said. “And yes, we do still have our serious birders.”
Glamping at Sea
Along with changing demographics, Lyons also noted a shift in cruise product with an “unprecedented level of comfort and luxury.” This trend started almost 10 years ago as the expedition industry transitioned from former Russian research vessels into more dedicated expedition vessels, he explained.
Today’s expedition ship is more likely to have fine dining, luxury suites, and even helicopters and submersibles aboard.
Celebrity Cruises’ fleet of 13 ships was recently augmented by the Celebrity Flora, a 100-passenger, super-luxurious expedition ship designed specifically for the Galapagos Islands. Nicola McNeish, the cruise line’s head of sales for the UK and Ireland, described the all-suite accommodation with service provided by personal attendants as “the first-ever glamping experience at sea.”
Aurora Expeditions will take delivery of a new ship, Greg Mortimer, in October 2019, with another ship confirmed for its inaugural Antarctica season in October 2021, according to managing director Robert Halfpenny. The latest vessel has twice the capacity of the vessel it is replacing, Polar Pioneer, and can accommodate up to 160 guests, but the company is limiting bookings to 120 per cruise, in line with IAATO regulations.
Silversea is taking bookings for the maiden voyage in July 2020 of its new ship, Silver Origin, an all-suite, 100-guest vessel designed specifically for cruises to the Galapagos Islands. Upscale trappings include butler-serviced suites, private verandas, minibars stocked with local snacks, and a range of drinks, large flat-screen television, 24-hour room service and in-suite dining, unlimited complimentary Wi-Fi, and complimentary expedition gear.
When it comes to destinations, polar expeditions are very much in demand for Silversea Cruises, said Conrad Combrink, senior vice president of expeditions and destination experiences.
“Other off-the-beaten-path regions have consistently been in high demand,” he said. “These areas include Russian Far East, West Africa, Australia’s Kimberley coast, and Micronesia. We are also seeing a strong demand for new polar and sub-Antarctic regions.”
International Expeditions’ 2019 and 2020 schedule includes Antarctica, the Falklands, South Georgia, and Australia’s Kimberley, while the program debuts new destinations like the Maldives or Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands alongside deep explorations such as a circumnavigation of Sicily and another of the Black Sea.
At AdventureSmith, Antarctica and the Galapagos are popular every year, as is the Panama Canal and Costa Rica itinerary. Smith said an Iceland cruise also sells out quickly each year.
Maple Leaf’s Gordon said most of the company’s new itineraries focus on Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. With the addition of a new luxury expedition catamaran, Cascadia, which increases the fleet’s capacity by 120 percent, Maple Leaf is now looking at emerging destinations.
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Photo credit: A Seabourn ship cruises Antarctic waters. Expedition cruising is becoming popular for cruisers who wanted to avoid mammoth ships from major cruise lines. Seabourn