Focus on Cruise:Expeditionary force


By Tom StieghorstJune 01, 2016

When explorer Ernest Shackleton was forming a crew for a 1914 expedition to the South Pole he placed a want ad: "Bitter cold, complete darkness and constant danger" were what the all-male crew could anticipate, according to the book "The 100 Greatest Advertisements." "Safe return doubtful."

It is still cold in Antarctica. But visits, while not routine, have become far more common. If 100 years ago traveling to Antarctica was akin to going to the moon, a century later it's only slightly more exotic than a trek to Borneo, although typically significantly more expensive.

Itineraries to Antarctica easily sell out on a growing number of cruise ships, and adventure cruising in general is suddenly the segment that everybody wants to get into.

"What we see is there's a lot of demand for the niche we're operating in," said Daniel Skjeldam, the CEO of Norway's Hurtigruten, one of the older brand names in expedition cruising, in business since 1893.

Hurtigruten is among a half-dozen lines that have recently ordered ships for this expanding market. Others include Crystal Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, Ponant and Scenic.

The market for any kind of adventure travel has been expanding, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, which found in a 2013 study that demand grew 65% annually between 2009 and 2012.

Cruises are a part of that overall growth. Adventurers can experience Canada's Northwest Passage on Crystal, hike Panama's vast Darien jungle with Un-Cruise Adventures or explore the Russian Arctic National Park with Poseidon Expeditions on the nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory.

Moreover, they can now book an expanding number of larger, more luxurious ships outfitted with "007"-style toys such as helicopters and submarines. More conventional lines, such as Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, are extending their reach in expedition.

Players new to the game, such as Crystal and Scenic, could bring crossover business from past customers. And cruise lines such as Seabourn, while maintaining their luxury identity, are tiptoeing into expedition-style experiences like landings on Antarctica, zodiac tours and kayaking excursions.

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Expedition cruises differ from standard ones in a few ways. The trips tend to be highly active and educational. As often as not, the ships are a delivery mechanism for land exploration. There's an emphasis on nature and on remote or undervisited destinations. There's often an element of hazard or risk at least implied in the voyage.

The ships are different, too. They're smaller, to start with, almost always under 500 passengers. Casinos are scarce. And many expedition ships are decorated simply and are light on service.

But that is starting to change. Increasingly, the category is attracting a breed of operator that, while keeping passenger counts low, is building more spacious ships with the amenities and attitudes of a luxury line.

The French-owned Ponant was among the first to marry luxury with discovery, but others are joining in. Among them is Crystal, which plans to enter the market in 2018 with the Crystal Endeavor, a 25,000-gross-ton, 200-passenger vessel that will be ice-hardened to permit polar voyages.

Scenic is also entering the cruise business with a 200-passenger ship, the Scenic Eclipse, which is being billed as a "discovery yacht."

And Silversea plans to re-engineer its original ship, the Silver Cloud, adding steel plating, rudders and propellers for polar cruising starting in late 2017.

"The expedition business has been doing so well we looked at how can we expand it," said Mark Conroy, the managing director for the Americas for Silversea.

All three ships will spread a small passenger group over a much larger footprint than traditional expedition ships, giving them a less cramped feel. They will have balconies, another rarity in expedition cruising.

The Eclipse will offer a complimentary minibar, a pillow menu, in-suite dining and an entry-level cabin of 345 square feet.

"Our customers want to see it and touch it and taste it, but they want to come back to their luxury yacht and spa and their martini," said Joe Maloney, the vice president of U.S. sales for Scenic. "Expedition generally connotes roughing it a little more than we intend."

Established expedition operators tend to view their ships more as platforms to get to remote places.

"We use the ship as a safe oasis," said Hurtigruten's Skjeldam. "We want [guests] to spend as much time as possible off the ship."

The less-deluxe players in the segment also emphasize the authentic quality of their cruises and the experience of their crews. "When we go into ports along the Norwegian coast, we don't use pilots," Skjeldam said. "Our captains are the pilots."

That tradition of competence is something passengers can rely on when they're on a small ship in a remote area, Skjeldam said.

A long, rich legacy

Expedition tourism has been around in various forms for more than a century. Many date the start of expedition cruising to 1966 when Lars-Eric Lindblad organized a cruise to Antarctica. Even today, Antarctica remains the core product that most adventure cruise lines strive to provide.

According to the 121-member International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), the number of visitors to the continent has tripled over the past 15 years, from 12,248 in 2000 to 36,702 in 2015.

The relatively small numbers reflect the trouble and expense of getting to Antarctica, as well as the limited season, which runs from December to March. In addition, the association sets limits on the amount and type of tourism to help preserve the environment.

Ships that carry more than 500 passengers can only pass by Antarctica without landing any guests. Those with 200 passengers or less have a broader range of possible landing sites than ships in the 201-to-500-passenger category.

The expense of Antarctica trips is also among the highest of any type of cruise. Beyond the cost of strengthening the ships' hulls for possible ice encounters, provisioning is difficult, there are landing licenses to obtain and specialized crew is brought on to lead and narrate excursions.

Ships in Antarctica must burn a costly gas/oil mix, rather than heavy diesel, to reduce air pollution.

"But it is truly worth the investment," Conroy said. "It can be a truly life-changing experience."

Anywhere off the beaten path

A second destination high on the list of every expedition operator is Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. Celebrity Cruises just completed an addition of two ships that will sail there for its Celebrity Xpeditions micro-brand, the first new vessels since Xpedition started in 2004.

Silversea has a dedicated ship, the Silver Galapagos, in the market, as well. Both are under 100 passengers, the limit set by regulators to keep the experience properly scaled and ecofriendly.

Polar regions other than Antarctica are frequent destinations, from Greenland, Spitsbergen and Franz Josef Land around to eastern Siberia and northern Alaska and Canada.

Beyond that, anywhere off the beaten path and endowed with natural or cultural attractions is a good bet, from islands in the Indian Ocean to Borneo, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.

The blue-footed booby, one of the birds that can be seen in the Galapagos.
The blue-footed booby, one of the birds that can be seen in the Galapagos.

To try to extend the discovery experience, some new-generation ships are being specially outfitted. The Scenic Eclipse will carry two twin-engine helicopters. Maloney said they're more than showpieces.

"There's about 10 or 12 landing areas [in Antarctica] that 90% of the cruises go to," Maloney said. "They're still pristine; they're beautiful. But 99.9% of people who visit Antarctica visit all those same places, and those places are a couple hundred yards wide or deep. With a helicopter, you've just expanded the range of exploration to about 1,000 square miles."

The Scenic Eclipse will also carry a submarine, which, for example, could be used to get a better view of sunken ships in the Mediterranean.

However, some operators are skeptical of their value. Sven-Olof Lindblad said he took a long look at adding a submarine to one of his vessels but decided against it in the end.

"To make practical use of a submarine was a challenge, and where you could use it was a problem," Lindblad said. "The idea of it was great; the execution was a problem."

How much is too much?

With all the increased capacity, some question whether there will be enough demand to fill the ships, especially since expedition cruises are generally longer and more expensive. A 12-day Scenic Antarctica cruise has a brochure price starting at just under $16,000.

Maloney said Scenic did research before it decided to create its first cruise product.

"The boomers are coming of age," he said. "The boomers don't want their grandmother's bus tour. They want experiential. They want engagement. They want discovery. They want enrichment."

He added: "Increasingly the responses, the research, the signs that we look for point to this sort of product being very attractive."

Others said the expedition category offers something different to the experienced cruiser.

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Linda Allen, owner of Cruises by Linda in Harrison, Ark., said, "What we've seen is the general cruise market has a small segment of people who are saying, 'I've been to several places around the world; I want to experience something very different.'"

Sven-Olof Lindblad said expedition fits the trend of people collecting experiences rather than objects as they get older.

Observers cite several other factors supporting demand, which will need to expand to accommodate at least 10 ships on the drawing boards, including two Hurtigruten vessels at 600 passengers each.

"It is very explainable [why] this category is growing," Hurtigruten CEO Skjeldam said. "Traditional cruising has a very high growth rate. Regular travel is more commonplace. A certain percentage of that [market] wants to go where other people aren't."

Also, Skjeldam said, more people are up for adventure and activity as they age.

"People are getting younger at heart," he said. "Sixty is the new 50, and 70 is the new 60. A lot of people coming into retirement have been traveling much more than their counterparts 15 years ago."

Some predict that demand will also be boosted by global sourcing. Several modern expedition lines have a customer base outside North America. Scenic was founded 20 years ago in Australia. Ponant draws North Americans, but many of its customers are French.

Ecotourism interest is another driver of expedition cruising. Several companies make an effort to adopt environmentally friendly practices. As one example, Hapag-Lloyd uses rechargeable electric motors on the zodiac boats on its expedition ships the Hanseatic and the Bremen.

Kayakers from the Seabourn Quest get close to sea lions on an ice floe.
Kayakers from the Seabourn Quest get close to sea lions on an ice floe.

One travel seller who has long served the expedition market expressed some ambivalence about all of the new capacity.

"In some ways, it's expanding the market, which may or may not be good," said Jean Pickard, a Virtuoso agent at SmartFlyer in Atlanta. "That depends on how many people you believe should be in either Antarctica or the Galapagos. [In] places like that, I don't know that more product is a good thing. It's a fine line between how much money do you take in before you end up ruining the product completely?"

Cruise lines say they're aware of the potential to spoil the party. They abide by the guidelines set by the IAATO in Antarctica and are on the forefront of environmental awareness.

Some lines, in addition to building ships, are expanding in other ways. Lindblad recently paid $20 million to acquire control of Natural Habitat, a land-based ecotourism and adventure travel company. And Ponant bought parts of Travel Dynamics International, a provider of enrichment programs on small cruise ships.

Pickard said that as larger, well-financed companies become attracted to the expedition segment, there's the potential for the pioneers of the business to get shouldered aside.

"I was in the Galapagos last November," she said, "and that was always a traditional market with small boats, with expedition ships, and then Celebrity comes in, and then Silversea comes in. I don't care if they're only 100 passengers, it's a whole different ball game."

But she added that newer luxury operators can do a fine job walking the line between luxury and expedition, citing a cruise on a 284-passenger Ponant ship in Alaska as an example.

Fairly large by expedition standards, the Ponant ship is still small enough to get into shallower waters and protected areas, and flexible enough in its itinerary to accommodate serendipity.

One night around dinner time, Pickard said, the ship went into a bay and found itself surrounded by 50 to 100 humpback whales. "The captain shut down the engines and we just stayed there," she recalled. "You can do things like that on a smaller ship."