Beneath the sea in Ponant’s ‘Blue Eye’ lounge
The Blue Eye sounds like the kind of ultra-hip amenity designed to attract millennial cruisers: an underwater lounge with high-def sound, curvy built-in benches and a bar serving themed cocktails. But those are simply a sideshow. The real point of the space is the double-thick windows through the hull into the sea beyond and the dozen hydrophones transmitting sound and vibration from the outside in.
For French cruise line Ponant, the Blue Eye is a unique bragging point that — along with the je ne sais quois of leather-fronted bureaus, sauna-like showers and a wine cellar stocked with vintage Chateau Talbot — distinguishes it from the flotilla of new luxury expedition ships now coming on line. The topic will be front-and-center at the Seatrade Global Cruise conference, the industry’s largest trade conference set for this week in Miami Beach.
Expedition cruising is far from new. Since 1966, Lindblad Expeditions — which partners with National Geographic — has been offering seagoing explorations to Antarctica and other remote locations. Over the years, other brands have joined suit — Zegrahm, Quark, Hurtigruten and now-defunct Orion among them. But until a decade ago, voyages typically were offered on retrofitted Soviet-era icebreakers with accommodations that Cruise Critic’s chief content strategist Carolyn Brown has characterized as “camping at sea.”
Nature-intensive expeditions on no-frills ships do still exist. But for upscale travelers accustomed to high-thread-count sheets, gourmet cuisine and end-of-the-day massages, luxury offerings combining comfort with extreme locations are exploding.
The burst means new options to polar regions, rarely visited Asian and Alaskan islands and the Russian far east, with adventure activities including kayaking, ice camping, snowshoeing and mountaineering. But the expansion comes with risks: Advocates worry about safety and potential impact on sensitive ecosystems by operators less experienced in these far-flung destinations.
Some 35 new expedition ships are on order, according to Erik-Niels Lund, CEO of Miami-based Sunstone Ships, which builds expedition vessels. Most are carrying 80-200 passengers; all can operate independently from port facilities in remote locales, either polar or warm-water.
Sunstone is building 10 ships, including Aurora Expedition’s 210-passenger Greg Mortimer, due to launch this fall. Other brands with new ships include both longstanding expedition companies Lindblad, Quark, Coral Expeditions and Oceanwide Expeditions, and companies best known for luxury, including Crystal Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd, Ponant, Seabourn and Silversea.
Wells Fargo cruise-sector analyst Tim Conder credits the surge to consumer behavior studies from around 2005 that showed buyers were more interested in experiences than in luxury goods like jewelry and cars.
Sven Lindblad, CEO of the company founded by his father, agrees. “If you have really extraordinary experiences, they live with you forever. They make you a more interesting person.”
In response to the shift, some cruise lines with bigger ships doubled down on onboard experiences such as complex water parks, thrill rides, Cirque du Soleil-style aerialist shows and professional training kitchens for hands-on cooking classes.
Other companies turned to a luxury market with a yen for bucket-list travel possible only on specially equipped small ships. “It’s a shift in demographics,” said Bob Simpson, vice president of expedition cruising for upscale travel company Abercrombie & Kent. “People are looking for immersion and engaging travel opportunities” — especially those who are younger, active and affluent. “These types of programs with smaller ships, smaller groups and closer touch points with staff and experts can translate into this.”
While seagoing expeditions have long included knowledgeable naturalists, inflatable tenders and active shore walks, luxury brands have added butler service, celebrity-chef menus and spas.
Their primary motivation, say experts: Keep current brand customers in the fold. “You have people who want more exclusive experiences. Larger operators want to keep them in the ecosystem,” said Conder, who will appear at this week’s conference. “The main thing is offering something new to their clientele.”
Other bonuses: Travelers who have never sailed and may not think of themselves as “cruisers” are often attracted to expedition sailings — making them more likely to sign on for mainstream cruises, said Richard Meadows, president of Seabourn, which began cruising to the Antarctic in 2013.
And expedition cruises command a significantly higher per diem rate — typically $1,000 per person per day or more — than other types of cruises, which can sell for one-tenth the price.
Whether those high fares actually result in greater profits is unclear. The cost of operating in extreme locations is far higher than in the Caribbean or Mediterranean, where port facilities are well developed, provisions are easily procured and seas are generally calm. Expedition cruises also require expert expedition teams and lecturers who interact with passengers throughout the entire voyage. Most expedition fares include liquor and most excursions, leaving limited options for cruise lines to boost revenue on board. And because of environmental restrictions in sensitive areas such as the Galapagos, Antarctica and the Arctic, they typically sail with a maximum of 200 passengers.
Public companies don’t break out the results of specific ships when they report their financials. But according to Lindblad, who has an insiders’ view of the industry, “these experiences garner significantly more [revenue] without necessarily having to build megaships … that require huge amounts of capital.” Case in point: Royal Caribbean’s 5,500-passenger Symphony of the Seas, launched in 2018, cost $1.35 billion. A typical expedition ship costs about $100 million, according to Sunstone’s Lund.
And large cruise companies like Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which both own lines operating expedition ships, “are very smart, with great revenue teams,” said John Lovell, president of leisure travel at Travel Leaders Group, one of North America’s largest travel agencies.
“I do know the guest satisfaction is extremely high on expedition ships,” Lovell said. “The per diems are justified. You’re experiencing a destination in a completely different way. You have experts on board. The few days you’re there really make an impact,” he said.
French line Ponant was one of the first upscale lines in the adventure-cruising space when it launched polar voyages two decades ago. A decade later, “we realized this marketplace was changing in the way the consumer felt and was experiencing travel. They wanted travel with greater meaning to it, and a greater understand of the place — the indigenous people, the flora, the fauna,” said Navin Sawhney, CEO of Ponant Americas. “But they wanted a certain level of comfort when they came back to the ship.”
The company first added a series of 264-passenger exploration yachts; it is now in the process of adding six 180-passenger ships and, in 2021, an ice-class ship. The six exploration ships feature the Blue Eye.
In 2008, luxury line Silversea also launched expeditions. The Monaco-based company — now majority-owned by Royal Caribbean — began sailing to what marketing executive Barbara Muckerman calls “the half of the planet that doesn’t have ports.” In 2017 it updated its all-suite polar exploration ship Silver Explorer and spent $40 million to refurbish Silver Cloud as an ice-class ship. Today it is boosting its offerings with a new expedition ship for the Galapagos due in 2020. And in 2021 it will offer the first expedition world cruise, a 150-day voyage from Ushuaia, Chile, to Antarctica, up the Pacific coast of South American to Tahiti, through the South Pacific, up the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, to the British Isles and Iceland to the Arctic, ending in Norway.
Several brands are seeking to attract passengers with extraordinary amenities.
After successfully launching two river ship lines, luxury Scenic Cruises and mid-market Emerald Waterways, Australian tour and cruise company Scenic announced it would launch two new 200-passenger expedition ships. Each will carry a submarine and two helicopters in addition to nine dining venues, all-veranda suites, a Pilates studio and a one-to-one staff-to-guest ratio.
“Luxury is doing what you want to do,” said Joelle Davis, Scenic USA’s vice president of brand management. The amenities give each traveler the options to choose his or her own level of adventure.
Scenic’s first ship, Scenic Eclipse, was originally slated to launch late last year. Its debut has now been delayed until later this year by shipyard slowdowns. The second, unnamed, is due in 2021.
Long-established luxury line Crystal Cruises also plans to carry a sub and two helicopters on its first foray into the expedition market, the 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, due in 2020. Many of its amenities are an extension of the service Crystal offers on its larger ocean ships and river ships, including a Nobu restaurant and five other dining venues, all-suite staterooms and butler service. (Many expedition ships have a single dining room.) Crystal Endeavor also features two mud rooms to speed guest embarkation and debarkation.
Seabourn, which has offered Antarctic cruises since 2013, will carry two submarines aboard its two new expedition ships, launching in 2021 and 2022. Both will lean on Seabourn’s sybaritic reputation. Along with a Thomas Keller restaurant and Andrew Weill spa, Seabourn’s new polar-class expedition ships will feature interior and exterior public spaces designed by hospitality icon Adam D. Tihany — known for interiors at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Hotel Cipriani in Venice and several other cruise ships.
The Seabourn ships are due for launch in June 2021 and May 2022. Though each carries 264 passengers, Seabourn will limit its capacity to 200 in Antarctica, which limits landings to 100 passengers at a time.
“Expedition travel stirs a passion to venture to remote locales first encountered by explorers and the adventurous, and the guest interiors need to feel like they are connected to these destinations through its design and materials,” said Seabourn’s Meadows via a release.
Miami-based SeaDream, which began yacht-style cruising on a pair of 100-passenger yachts in 2001, is adding a 220-passenger ship in 2021 with polar capacity that will carry a helicopter and sea plane. Rather than enclose the ship in cold climes, founder / chairman Atle Brynestad said he’s planning outdoor viewing and sleeping options under warming lamps and electric blankets so guests can stay outdoors longer.
The wave of luxury options with flashy features has put pressure on longtime expedition cruise operators, who are responding with their own new ships and programs.
Quark Expeditions — the first company to offer consumer expeditions to the North Pole in the 1990s — is adding a new polar-rated ice-class ship to its current seven-vessel fleet with an unusually long 70-day supply of fuel, water and provisions. It, too, will carry a pair of helicopters when it launches in late 2020.
When Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic launched the 100-passenger National Geographic Quest in June 2017, it was the first new-build in the company’s history. Last year, it launched a sister ship, National Geographic Venture. Both offer family and connecting cabins and step-out balconies and are outfitted with sea kayaks, paddle boards, snorkeling gear and military-grade Zodiacs. The ships were designed to enhance guest viewing options by tucking anchors out of sight and creating public spaces with wrap-around windows. In 2020, it will launch National Geographic Endurance, equipped with outdoor hot tubs and a yoga studio.
Later this year, 25-year-old Dutch firm Oceanwide Expeditions will introduce the 174-passenger M/V Hondius, strengthened to Polar Class 6 for expeditions to both polar regions. Also this year, Sunstone Ships’ client Aurora Expeditions, a 25-year-old Australian company, will introduce the 120-passenger Greg Mortimer. One of its signature features is the X-bow, a design patented by Norway’s Ulstein company to ease the ride in rough seas like the Drake Passage separating South America from Antartica.
Though travelers most often associate “expeditions” with the polar regions, Australia-based Coral Expeditions has spent 24 years proving that the remote natural and human cultures of the South Pacific hold their own allure. This month the company launches the 120-passenger Coral Adventurer to complement its existing three-ship fleet plying the waters of Australia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The goal, said company executive Jeffrey Gilles, is “to have the most advanced tropical-waters expedition vessel, with a shallow draft so we can get into rivers and remote tropical regions.” The company features local cuisine and often visits local villages.
Hurtigruten, a 125-year-old Norwegian company, is taking a different tack. Its two new ships, launching this year and next, will each accommodate 530 guests (500 on polar voyages) — more than double the number carried on most polar sailings, and with more than three times the gross tonnage. The size allows for amenities like private hot tubs on the deck of the most sumptuous suites, an onboard science center, greater stability in rough waters and significantly lower pricing than on smaller ships. This winter, for instance, Antarctic sailings start at less than $700 per person per day.
“It’s not the luxury end of the product,” said Hurtigruten President Daniel Skjeldam. “Our hardware is as good but it’s a more casual type of experience.”
But the size comes with a significant drawback: Under environmental rules, only 100 passengers are allowed to land at one time in the Antarctic. Skjeldam said Hurtigruten is managing the numbers by offering varied experiences simultaneously, such as shore activities, lectures and ice cruising.
But longstanding expedition brands argue that there’s more to adventure cruising’s onboard amenities. Their real advantage, they say, is the experience that comes with time. That translates maritime knowledge, safety, relationships with top naturalists — increasingly in demand — and behind-the-scenes operations that can affect the guest experience.
Silversea’s Muckerman points to conflicts early in the line’s expedition history between naturalists who call out every wildlife sighting, sending guests dashing for cameras, and a culinary crew focused on gourmet cuisine. “It was time for the lobster, and everyone was rushing outside. It was a culture shock,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing you think about until you do it.” Over time, the culinary team learned to adapt.
More importantly, perhaps, is the knowledge that can mitigate the risks inherent in sailing to remote locations. In Antarctica, where a hospital is a minimum two-day sail away, serious injury or illness can be catastrophic. Last summer, a guard aboard a Hapag-Lloyd ship was injured and a polar bear shot dead after the bear and guard found themselves in close proximity during a landing in Svalbard, Norway. And just a few weeks ago, hundreds of passengers were evacuated from a Viking ship sailing off the western coast of Norway after it lost power.
Environmental advocates also warn against the potential for damaging sensitive lands and cultures.
Said Lindblad, “It’s a double-edge sword. In many ways I believe the more people can get out and be exposed to these places, it creates awareness and interest. It changes the way people see the world…as far as I’m concerned a good thing.”
He and others point out that the total number of new berths adds up to fewer beds than on a single megaship.
Some cruise companies are looking to alternative fuels to ameliorate impact. Hurtigruten’s new Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen will be the first hybrid powered ships at sea. Ponant’s ice-class ship will run on liquified natural gas.
Still, the use of helicopters raises some eyebrows. Said one cruise executive, “The core of any expedition is the preservation of the areas you go and visit. Most of these areas have the most amazing wildlife in the world. Then you put a helicopter on them ... what are you trying to do? In the best case scenario, you’re going to scare off the animals.
“Is that an expedition?”
Jane Wooldridge is President-Elect of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers. Follow her travels @JaneWooldridge and at luxuryinthewild.com.