Expedition Cruising

Cruise lines take aim at the growing market for unique and remote destinations

By: By Marilyn Green

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Expedition cruising in the Western world is at least as old as Leif Erikson, and its fascination has, if anything, grown over the centuries with faraway places that few humans have ever seen, providing life-changing experiences. People cherish dreams of standing on Antarctic shores, of seeing the amazing life of the Galapagos Islands and other parts of the world as remote as another planet from their customary lives.

Cruise lines take aim at the growing market for unique and remote destinations // (c) 2008
Cruise lines take aim at the growing marketing for
unique and remote destinations

Queen Isabella, who sent Christopher Columbus on his expedition in 1492, would have been ecstatic to send out a collective fleet like the one that sails the world today from the ice cap of Greenland to the Antarctic Sea. And demand is growing dramatically despite high prices (and the attendant high commissions), long air travel and economic woes.

“The interest in expedition cruising is definitely on the rise, among both affluent baby boomers and seasoned travelers wanting to further enrich their already wide knowledge of more traditional and established destinations,” said executive vice president David Morris of Silversea Cruises, which debuted the luxury explorer Prince Albert II this year.

Planning a similar pattern of sailing to famous, as well as lesser-known, ports is Orient Lines, which originally debuted in 1993 and was highly successful as an expedition company. Orient was sold to Norwegian Cruise Line in 1996, but did not fit in with NCL’s portfolio of new, large vessels and ceased operations in March, when the Marco Polo was sold to Greece’s Global Maritime. The brand itself was sold in June to the Origin Cruise Group, headed up by former travel agent Wayne Heller, and the new Marco Polo II, which starts operation next April, will retain the familiar features of the original vessel — even the deck names — while adding four single-seating restaurants and 20 percent fewer passengers on a 20 percent larger vessel.

In the meantime, Jennifer Gregoire, spokesperson for Lindblad Expeditions, said the company has not seen interest lag at all in the booking pattern for 2008 and 2009.

Kristy Royce, vice president of Expedition Trips of Seattle, a travel agency specializing in expedition trips, said she also has not seen a decline in interest.

“We’re as busy as we’ve ever been — there’s really more business than we can handle, and we have had to pull back on marketing,” said Royce. “These are dream trips for people — it would take a lot for them not to go. People may downgrade a cabin category if things are tight, but they will still sail.”

Andrew Poulton, director of strategic marketing for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, sees mass media feeding the taste for remote travel.

“People are more curious about the world than ever before,” he noted. “The Internet and television bombard them with exotic imagery; even reality shows expose people to all kinds of places they would never have seen before. Interest in the polar regions has been fed by movies like ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘March of the Penguins,’ and people are responding to global warming by deciding to see fragile areas, including Alaska, now.”

Rick Meadows, CTC, executive vice president of Holland America Line’s marketing, sales and guest programs, agreed. He said the line’s world-traveling “Elegant Explorer,” the Prinsendam, produces the highest per diems in the fleet and continues to do very well with Grand Voyages including the 68-day South America/Antarctica itinerary.

The most remote areas seem to be gaining in popularity. Demand is so great for Hurtigruten’s sailings to Spitzbergen in the Arctic Circle that president Hans Rood said the company was sold out last year and the line is placing a third ship in the region.

The Expedition Client

Brad Anderson, co-president of San Diego-based America’s Vacation Center (AVC), pointed out that there are now 77 million baby boomers, 51 million Gen Xers and 70 million Gen Yers in the U.S. alone, all of whom are candidates for expedition cruising.

“We all know about the tastes of the boomers, but the younger generation has had a taste of mobility and has a voracious appetite for exploring, direct experience and not just watching television,” he stated. “They grew up on vacations with boomer parents and will spend their money on travel experiences. If you add Canada and parts of Europe, there’s a giant opportunity here. People want environmentally friendly travel with respect and courtesy to the living things they encounter. “

Gregoire characterizes Lindblad’s clients as curious and intelligent world travelers. She said clients’ demographics vary widely depending on itinerary and season, with family groups more inclined to visit the Galapagos, Baja and Alaska. Morris, too, finds that guests aboard their ship the Prince Albert II, range from people in their 40s to well into their 70s.

“Adventure travel isn’t just about age these days — it’s a mindset,” he said.

 With a strong demand in difficult economic times and high ticket costs, expedition cruising should be on every agent’s radar, according to industry veteran Dave Randon, vice president, sales and marketing for Variety Cruises, which offers soft-expedition cruising aboard yachts, either as charters or scheduled FIT sailings.

“Most agents fish in the same pond [traditional cruises] and unfortunately don’t seek out new revenue avenues,” he said “This market is for the seasoned traveler, not necessarily just cruisers.”

AVC’s Anderson stressed that, for agents who want to sell this lucrative segment, it is vital to know that the picture is changing.

“Clients want the normal amenities, but we keep hearing that they are looking for excitement and enrichment opportunities,” he said. “We have five times the business in the luxury expedition product this year than we had in all of 2007. Without taking anything away from the big ships, one of the things people want is a small, unique experience.”

Where the Lines Go

As the traditional cruise divisions — contemporary, premium, luxury — blur, expedition cruising has moved closer to mainstream and mainstream closer to expedition, each gaining and losing characteristics they change. At the same time, more and more larger ships are going into remote areas and contemporary lines are regularly taking passengers into regions that were once unvisited or seen only on world cruises and luxury itineraries.

In the past, the small ships that explored the world’s remote destinations ranged from spartan to reasonably comfortable. Today, expedition vessels have become far more luxurious, while mainstream cruise lines sail to destinations to which expedition ships formerly had sole rights. China is now a homeport for a number of cruise lines, India is becoming a much more regular destination and Africa is being visited on all coasts.

“We’re seeing more exotic travel on non-expedition ships,” said Regent Seven Seas’ Poulton. “For instance, the Aleutian Islands are considered an expedition destination, but the Mariner is going there. And we wouldn’t even have thought of planning a cruise around Africa in times past — who would take it? Guess what? It sold out as soon as we announced it.”

Regent is also an example of a cruise line with both larger ships and expedition ships under its wing. Poulton said the Paul Gauguin is doing well, as is the Minerva, which is chartered for two Antarctic cruises a year that draw Regent’s highest per diems.

“People’s eyes light up,” Poulton said. “It’s transformational; even the world-weary and cynical find magic [in the Antarctic].”

Princess Cruises is also booking well on two ships in Polynesia: the Pacific Princess and the Tahitian Princess.

Expedition Trips’ Royce described the traditional destinations of expedition cruising as the Antarctic, Alaska, the Galapagos, the Arctic, the Amazon, the Russian Far East and some of the South Pacific.

Expedition lines go to great lengths to connect passengers with the world around them.

Royce said the expedition difference in Alaska is that a large ship may pass by whales and announce that they are there, but an expedition ship will stop and have people out among the whales within 10 minutes.

In addition to naturalists and underwater specialists, Lindblad has remote operation vehicles that go to incredible depths with hydrophones and underwater cameras. The line’s seventh ship, National Geographic Explorer, launched at the end of summer with a remote-operated vehicle that can explore to depths of 1,000 feet, a remote-controlled crow’s nest camera with real-time footage broadcast on high-definition LCD screens within each cabin and an electronic chart system broadcast on a cabin television channel.

Many expedition cruises follow in the footsteps of explorers from Lewis and Clark to Amundsen through French Polynesia and the Northwest Passage, where Hapag-Lloyd is offering cruises in 2009 on two ships: the MS Hanseatic and the MS Bremen. Demand is so high that the Bremen is sold out, but there is some availability on the Hanseatic, which operates a bilingual cruise departing Nome,
Alaska, on Aug. 12 for a 25-day voyage around Greenland and the Arctic Circle, ending in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Hurtigruten has turned the journey between the North and South Poles into extremely popular Vertical World Cruises on the new 310-passenger Fram, which also offers Antarctic cruising and Greenland Exploration cruises with air departures from Baltimore.

Another inventive route from the South Pole is Voyages of Discovery’s (formerly known as Discovery World Cruises) Cape to Cape cruise from Cape Horn to Cape Town in February. The line also includes the Red Sea among its offerings.

There is a sizable clientele for longer expedition cruises. Holland America’s Prinsendam, for instance, starts 2009 with two Grand Voyages: a 68-day South America and Antarctica cruise and a 50-day Europe and the Black Sea itinerary, both roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

More cruise lines are sailing to exotic destinations like Vietnam. // (c) Hapag-Lloyd
More cruise lines are sailing to exotic
locations like Vietnam

Cruise West is adding more far-flung itineraries in 2009 with four new cruises to the Galapagos Islands, the East Indies and Melanesia and a return to Vietnam. Cruise West chairman and managing director Dick West said he personally scouted the Galapagos itinerary, which will be offered on three sailings aboard the 40-passenger Isabella II. The 10-day program includes two days in Quito, Ecuador, and a post-cruise Machu Picchu excursion is available. Cruise West introduced Vietnam in 2007 and will bring back the 12-day itinerary from Haiphong to Ho Chi Minh City next year in November on its Spirit of Oceanus. The line will also offer a new 17-day Sydney to Fiji voyage throughout Melanesia including Papua, New Guinea.

It isn’t only the destinations, however, it’s the up-close-and-personal aspect onboard that defines an expedition cruise.

Because its ships are small, Cruise West can venture into narrow inlets, shallow waterways and get closer to shore to view wildlife. Its ships can also make port calls at smaller towns and villages that don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the large numbers of guests from the big ships. For example, in Alaska, three of Cruise West’s eight itineraries visit the Tsimshian community of Metlakatla, where the native people perform a traditional dance in full costume in their Long House. And, in Japan, guests sip tea with the family of a fourth generation abbot in Uwajima.

Azamara Cruises creates itineraries that take guests to a mix of unknown ports as well as famous ones. Shore excursions include in-depth experiences like the Livadia Palace (or the White Palace) on the southern coast of Crimea, a summer residence of Russia’s imperial family in the 1860s; the cafe culture of Talinn, developed since the 17th century; and the extraordinary abbey of Mont Saint Michel on the border between Brittany and Normandy, France.

Oceania Cruises’ ships also offer an unusual slant, even in traditional ports. They provide intimate, exclusive events available only to smaller ships and smaller groups on shore, including visiting the homes of people who produce wines or other distinctive products in a region, seeing Mt. Aetna by 4x4 vehicle and more. An Ancient Meanderings itinerary, for example, combines an overnight in Venice, Italy, with calls in Koper, Slovenia, and Split and Dubrovnik, Croatia. The cruise also visits Sarande, Albania; Amalfi and Cinque Terre, Italy; as well as famous ports like Florence/Pisa and Rome, Italy.

Similarly, Windstar Cruises’ ships explore unusual ports and extremely attractive destinations in the Mediterranean and the Greek Islands and offer in-depth explorations of Costa Rica.

American Safari combines small-ship exploration on the sea and the rivers — taking passengers on the expedition version of Alaska and Hawaii plus the Columbia and Snake rivers. Indeed, river cruises make up a major segment of the adventure expedition product, sailing to areas where early settlers used the inland waterways to penetrate large land masses.

A number of companies package expedition tours and cruises together, with some providing their own ships for cruising rivers like the Nile and the Yangtze. For example, Uniworld takes guests to 12 rivers in 20 countries across four continents, including Russia, Egypt and China.
Viking River cruises has put vessels on the Yangtze River, as well as on rivers in Russia, the Ukraine and unique ports in Europe. Avalon is adding the Amazon, and Tauck includes Egypt and China. Abercrombie & Kent, whose name stood for luxury expedition before the terms was coined, visits destinations from Egypt to the Yangtze by water.

AVC’s Anderson predicts there will be an insatiable appetite for upscale expedition cruising over the next five years.

“Cost isn’t very important to this clientele,” he said. “But the boomers want to experience something special. They also want champagne, massages and aromatherapy.”

Anderson said Celebrity’s Xpeditions led the way with elegant cruising in the Galapagos, and he doesn’t think Silversea’s Prince Albert II is by any means the last luxury expedition ship to be launched.

“A decade from now I foresee a bunch of little Crystal Sereneties delivering personal experiences,” he said. “And lines like Hurtigruten and the Niche Cruise Alliance members have a fascinating future if they can deliver the basic amenities people want: good bedding, phones and televisions. They want to learn and experience, but also to have a great vacation.”