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Once upon a time, an expedition ship was fairly basic: simple beds in small cabins, pleasant food and spectacular destinations.
But times have changed, and today’s expedition ships are among the most luxurious vessels on the seas. Expedition cruise lines are polishing the product; building new, upscale vessels; and taking their luxury ships into new destinations.
Many travel agents believe this upscale expedition cruise product is the wave of the future, catering to travelers with long bucket lists and high standards for comfort and service.
The luxury expedition cruise product that first reached the market about a decade ago has evolved to offer agents a range of sales opportunities.
Farseeing Celebrity Cruises launched its Xpedition sub-brand in 2004 in the Galapagos Islands, and Seabourn Cruise Line has a history of sailing to remote destinations, including the Amazon River.
Silversea Cruises entered the luxury expedition cruise market in 2009 with what is now Silver Explorer (formerly Prince Albert II). The ship had an ice-rated hull and a fleet of Zodiacs onboard, along with a serious spa, elegant dining and deluxe accommodations. The company currently has three such vessels sailing a range of destinations from the Galapagos to the Arctic, Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk.
The company is constantly upgrading: The all-suite Silver Galapagos is undergoing the second phase of refurbishment this month, including a complete refresher of all suites, corridors and the Explorer Lounge. Last year, the ship added marble bathrooms, a fitness center, a massage room, a beauty salon, an outdoor Jacuzzi and Silversea's signature outdoor dining venue, The Grill.
“The destination itself will always be the top priority for our guests, but when they go off on incredible adventures ashore, they will return to a ship that offers beautiful suites, fine dining and exceptional onboard service,” said Brad Ball, a spokesperson for Silversea.
John Delaney, senior vice president, marketing and sales for Seabourn, said the company made a strong move into expedition cruising with the addition of an Antarctica itinerary in 2013. The second season in the destination has been even stronger than the first, and guest ratings have been consistently high, said Delaney. With this in mind, Seabourn is replacing its standard world cruise with new itineraries, including a 116-day sailing from Barcelona to South Africa, Burma and Singapore. Delaney said the cruise, which sails in November, is nearly sold out.
“We’ll come back to world cruises in a few years,” Delaney said. “But we’re going where people want to go — to new places with brand-new port content. Luxury travelers are looking for more than ever before.”
Un-Cruise Adventures has offered its own brand of exploration combined with luxury since the launch in 1996 of its earliest incarnation as American Safari Cruises. Now, the company is bringing its highly inclusive product to the Galapagos in 2016.
The company has scheduled eight cruises onboard Yacht La Pinta, which Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Un-Cruise, describes as a very upscale ship.
“The higher-end clientele wants genuine, life-changing experiences, and they want to do it as they are accustomed,” Jacox said. “This includes having premium spirits onboard as part of the experience and not having to sign for their drinks at dinner. They want a really nice platform for the type of experience they’re looking for, to come back to the ship and be pampered.”
Newcomer Haimark Cruises is building luxury ships for the expedition market as fast as it can for sailings in the Amazon and on the Irrawaddy, Mekong and Ganges rivers. The three-year-old company, which is headed by travel industry veterans, markets with partners such as Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Avalon Waterways. The company also has inventory that travel agents can sell directly; access to live inventory will be available via Haimark’s website starting in November.
Haimark is currently developing an all-suite spa ship for the Mekong River, which will be a first for the expedition cruise industry. The ship will offer extensive spa services available to guests in treatment rooms or their personal suites. Spa cuisine will complement regional dishes and traditional international dining options.
“Customers are not prepared to compromise on the luxurious aspects of life when they explore,” said Tom Markwell, managing partner of sales and marketing for Haimark. “You have to combine an unparalleled way to explore exotic destinations with a competitive onboard experience.”