Participants the world-over “zoomed” together March 8-9 for “Seatrade Cruise Virtual – Expedition Cruising” to learn more about one of the cruise industry’s fastest-growing segments. The keynote session, “The State of the Expedition Cruise Industry,” brought together five leaders who provided insight into where it stands and where it’s going.
Moderated by the Seatrade News Editor Anne Kalosh, she asked the panelists why expedition cruising is booming. One reason, cited by Roberto Martinoli, president and CEO of Silversea Cruises, is “it’s a great value for the whole cruise industry, going to places you can only reach on a ship” and attracting many first-time cruisers.
As evidence of the boom, he said in the next two years, 27 new expedition ships will hit the market, from both existing and new operators, with total passenger capacity growing by 140 percent.
And what’s driving that growth? According to Sven-Olof Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, there are a “growing number of people who want to experience nature,” adding “there is a concern it might be gone in the not-too-distant future,” a sentiment he doesn’t share. One caution he also noted: “I hope we don’t see price wars if demand-supply is out of balance.”
But in the light of the pandemic that has thrown the whole industry into neutral, what about bookings, Kalosh asked.
Herve Bellaiche, chief sales and marketing officer for PONANT, admitted last “March to September was difficult,” but “we have tremendous demand,” adding that only 10 percent of passengers booked asked for a refund. “The cruise market is 29 million cruisers a year,” Bellaiche noted. “Ships under 1,000 capacity are 900,000 a year, and expedition ships 300,000 a year. Growth has been 8% — it can double in the coming years.”
So who is the typical expedition cruise customer? Geoffrey Kent, founder and co-chairman of Abercrombie and Kent, a luxury adventure travel company, said their customers are “well -educated and well-traveled, with a desire to learn,” aged 45-65, many who are joined by their families. Asta Lassesen, CEO of Hurtigruten Expeditions, added, “People want more sustainable travel — they want to learn, get closer and meet locals.”
Of course, the year-long pandemic has brought its own set of challenges. Bellaiche noted normally PONANT guests are booked a year or more in advance, but their current booking window is two months, “which is very difficult.” Aside from instituting new health protocols, there is general uncertainty over when countries will allow cruising to resume.
With Canada out of the question and other popular destinations a question mark, Lindblad talked about how devastating the virus has been to countries. “Businesses are closing and hotels are going out of business …I don’t know how much longer this can last,” he said. But he is optimistic about the vaccines, noting the expedition industry’s smaller ships “have an advantage” if vaccinations are required.
But should they be required, Kalosh asked.
“It’s too early to make it a requirement,” said Bellaiche. “The problem with requiring vaccines is getting the crew vaccinated,” noting in France there’s not enough vaccine available. Lassesen also made the point that, “We have a big responsibility not to expose small communities to the virus.”
On a more positive note, Martinoli said “bookings for 2022 and 2023 are looking real good, and people can’t wait to get back,” adding their older passengers were more excited to get back than the younger ones.
Regarding how expedition cruising can add more value to their destinations, all agreed it’s in everyone’s interest to preserve and protect the sometimes fragile eco-systems they visit.
” We have a huge opportunity to get more deeply involved with conservation and education,” said Lindblad, and “protect the assets we depend upon.” As an example, he cited the Galapagos Relief Fund his company co-sponsors. He added, “Creating a valuable interaction that benefits the community and the guest isn’t easy. We shouldn’t just come and go and then disappear.”
As more and more ships come into the market, Lindblad said “overcrowding could diminish the experience — I am deeply concerned about places like Antarctica,” which has limited landing spots.
Still, there was optimism across the board for the future of expedition cruising, best capsulized by Kent:
“You can take a dream and make it happen for the normal person.”
Quark Expeditions Ultramarine, courtesy Quark