Lindblad in Antarctica // © 2016 Lindblad
Feature image (above): The Scenic Eclipse features a helicopter. // © 2016 Scenic
Sweaty and uplifted after a day spent hiking and interacting with exotic animals, we returned to our ship where a crew member met us with cold towels. We were on a Galapagos itinerary with Celebrity Cruises’ Xpedition, exploring regions and cultures that once would have entitled us to Explorer’s Club memberships. But when we returned to our vessel, we left all of that ruggedness behind and entered a world of exquisite food, top service and total comfort.
Mixing luxury with expedition cruising has been a growing trend in recent years — increasing from an offering on just a few specialty vessels to a sizable sector of cruising. Fierce, market-driven competition among cruise lines is delivering ever-greater amenities and adventurous itinerary options. And there is plenty of business to fuel the fire: In its 2013 global report on adventure tourism, the World Tourism Organization estimated the value of the adventure market at $263 billion, with a 195 percent increase in just over two years.
The pace of this recent expansion is impressive. Crystal Cruises followed up its 62-guest Crystal Esprit with the announcement of Crystal Endeavor, a 200-passenger polar-class mega-yacht scheduled for completion by August 2018. And under its new ownership, Ponant is building four more luxury polar-class ships — each with 92 cabins, all with balconies — debuting in 2018 and 2019.
In addition, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, which helped define expedition cruising, went public last year and ordered two new 100-passenger U.S.-flagged coastal vessels for delivery in 2017 and 2018. The company also bought Via Australis, and has plans for serious ship refurbishment and sailings in the Galapagos.
Our vessel, Celebrity Cruises’ Xpedition, launched in 2004 in the Galapagos and was originally intended to be the first in a group of luxury expedition ships. Celebrity is now buying two ships from Galapagos tour operator Ocean Adventure: the 48-passenger Eclipse and the 16-passenger catamaran Athala II.
Meanwhile, Hurtigruten just placed the largest ship order in its 120-year history: two 600-passenger adventure vessels — due in 2018 and 2019 — and options for two more. And besides its sailings to the polar regions and Norwegian coast, the company will extend its reach to the Amazon rainforest and Arctic Canada in 2017.
“This is a milestone for us and expresses how confident we are in the growth of the global market for adventure tourism,” said Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten. “We intend to build the most formidable expedition ships the world has seen.”
Next year, Silversea Cruises, which has steadily grown its expedition fleet since it introduced Prince Albert II (now Silver Explorer) in 2007, will convert the 296-guest Silver Cloud into a luxury ice-class expedition ship offering five dining options and a nearly one-to-one staff-to-guest ratio.
There’s also a new hat in the ring. Australian tour company and river cruise line Scenic has announced that after three years of planning, it is launching an ocean cruise line in August 2018 with the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse, billed as the world’s first discovery yacht.
Other luxury lines are adding expedition sailings as well. Seabourn Cruise Line is placing an emphasis on Antarctica, Patagonia and the Amazon; and Un-Cruise Adventures sails its luxury expeditions in Hawaii, Alaska, coastal Washington and British Columbia, the Sea of Cortez and the Columbia and Snake rivers. Indeed, it is the style of the cruise — not just the destination — that makes a luxury sailing an expedition.
Luxury expeditions typically explore remote areas of the world, but they also help passengers deeply experience destinations through tools such as new technology. Leslie Fambrini, president of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., points out that expedition cruises aim to offer activities that go beyond the norm.
“Cruise lines are using an armada of equipment, from helicopters to submarines,” she said. “The snorkel experience of the past is now a submarine dive. Where we once toured the Amalfi Coast via car, now there’s an option to do it via helicopter — all while taking photos with a drone.”
A Sustainable Market
Given all the growth, will this niche market become saturated? Suppliers say Antarctica is booked solid, and the Galapagos has become enormously popular in the past five years, but agents generally agree that there is enough interest to fill the announced capacity — and more.
Katharine Bonner, vice president of river and small-ship cruising for Tauck, doesn’t think there’s any danger of saturation.
“Based on research, there is the expectation that luxury cruising will continue to rise — possibly tripling in the next decade,” Bonner said. “Even if the capacity doubles, you could still fit it all in half of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas.”
Bonner notes that people are retiring younger — at 50 and 60 now — and with more money. They are booking many of the kind of bucket-list destinations that lend themselves better to expedition cruising, such as the Galapagos.
Beth Schulberg, owner of Cruise and Travel Specialists in Lake Oswego, Ore., finds plenty of demand for luxury expedition cruises, as well.
“Are there enough people with wealth in the world to sustain this new surge in luxury travel? Absolutely,” she said. “Those who are addicted to luxury travel are mostly retired or retiring baby boomers. They have the time to go away for long periods; their children are out of college; and they have downsized from their large homes.”
Bonner says that Tauck, which currently uses Ponant ships, believes luxury expedition is mostly gauged by the quality of interaction with the destination.
“There’s a lot of talk about amenities onboard, but what makes a cruise successful is how people will experience the destination — not toys used by a fraction of the passengers,” she said. “At Tauck, we want to partner with cruise lines that offer superior interaction with the destination in places where the client can experience the place better by water.”
Monika Weinsoft, business development manager for International Expeditions, Quark Expeditions and Zegrahm Expeditions in the Western U.S. and Canada, agrees.
“Luxury is defined differently depending on the person,” she said. “In this sector, it’s about custom, personal service related to the authentic experience of the destination. Our expeditions team, made up of specialists, interacts constantly with the guests. The passengers think they are just having meaningful conversations with team members, but the team is actually learning everything they can about the guests, and then they adapt the excursions to cater specifically to their interests.”
Schulberg says her clients often opt for anything that makes their trips more memorable, as well as more comfortable.
“The boomers are coming of age, with great wealth and comparatively few responsibilities,” she said. “They can buy what they really want, and many of them are opting for experiences rather than things.”
According to Schulberg, when creating one-of-a-kind experiences for luxury clients, price may be a concern, but value is always of utmost importance.
“Our wealthiest clients request the best suites on ships, the best rooms in hotels or first-class air because they want to experience the amenities that come with a luxury product,” she said. “The amenities are what the luxury client is after. That is what creates value. One client asked to pay an additional fee for suite amenities, even though the suites were sold out.”
The Future of Expedition Cruising
Fambrini of Personalized Travel Consultants sees both the boomer market and the huge spending power of millennials as targets for luxury expeditions. She believes the expansion of expedition cruising will help to secure future business from millennials, who will represent a third of the U.S. adult population by 2020, and generate more than $1 trillion in consumer spending now.
“There is no question there are discretionary travel funds out there, and I do see a future where travelers will step outside the more traditional cruise product, taking today’s experiential travel to that ‘beyond’ experience,” Fambrini said. “The clients are likely a combination of existing ones and the millennial generation who seem to have the funds.”
Weinsoft says demand has prompted them to offer shorter cruises because of the expanding number of interested passengers who still work or who have heavy responsibilities back home.
She notes that agents often say they don’t have any expedition clients — but they are actually most likely sitting on a gold mine of potential business. Agents need to know the hallmarks of a client who would enjoy expedition cruising: They’re the sophisticated, experienced traveler who is ready for something beyond the usual. Weinsoft said her company has abundant fam trips and incentives for agents to educate themselves on the specific appeal of this sector.
Veteran agents are responding to this trend as if it’s a whole new area of the industry, similar to modern river cruising.
“When I need to study a map to determine port sequence on an itinerary, as I did last week, we’re entering new territories that will likely become a new normal for future generations of travelers — the adventurers who want new and different ports of call,” Fambrini said.
Hurtigruten’s Skjeldam also sees an increasing number of mainstream cruisers moving into the luxury expedition market.
“People no longer want to spend their holiday time being passive spectators,” he said. “The new adventure traveler is looking for authentic experiences, which is why sedentary, standardized travel packages are becoming less popular, and active adventure travel is booming.”
Schulberg of Cruise and Travel Specialists sees this type of travel becoming an unstoppable trend.
“Our luxury travel vendor partners that are going after the affluent traveler understand that if they offer a different experience with superb customer service, the travel experience can be like a drug,” she said. “It’s like an addiction — one the affluent traveler cannot get enough of. It will become a way of life for them.”