Expedition Cruise Players Bullish on Near-Term Recovery

The fastest growing segment of the cruise industry is the expedition market, with a stream of new ships, new brands and new product offerings set to continue for the balance of 2021 and into the future.

Among the big news, Victory Cruise Lines is now American Queen Voyages, set to debut in 2022 in Alaska.

[For a complete look at the expedition cruise market, see the 2021 Expedition Market Report by Cruise Industry News]

Currently sailing a fleet of river and coastal vessels, the brand is launching a program of Alaska exploration itineraries in 2022, using a chartered, purpose-built expedition ship, the 186-guest Ocean Victory.

Director of Expeditions Michael Bennett said plans are on track for the inaugural season, which will also mark the vessel’s first summer season.

“We are picking up the ship from our partners in Valparaiso, in April. We are then doing our trip from Costa Rica up and then start our inaugural Alaska season in early May,” he explained, citing Albatros Expeditions, who co-charters the vessel.

While Alaska may be getting “pretty saturated,” Bennett noted, American Queen is offering its guests the destination’s “hidden nooks.”

“That’s the trick. All of us are trying to find places that people haven’t already discovered,” he added.  

One key differentiating point of the program is its educational aspect, which includes science research and programs with schools.

Having restarted its expedition product in the Galapagos in July 2021, Silver Expeditions is continuing to build upon its restart.

The luxury operator has now managed to confirm its 2021-2022 season in Antarctica, which was internally considered a “holy grail,” according to Conrad Combrink, SVP of Expeditions, Tour Operating and Destination Management. 

Traditionally based in Argentina, Silversea’s fleet will now sail from two different Chilean ports, Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams.

“We have been working very closely with the Chilean government to get the Antarctica season up and running,” Combrink said, adding that the efforts proved to be successful.

The decision to move the operations, however, is part of a “longer view,” he said. The plan includes investing back in local communities and training expedition staff in Chile.

In addition to the Antarctica season, Silversea is also planning cruises in early 2022 to the Amazon and in the Indian Ocean.

Currently being converted for expedition service in Poland, the Silver Wind is set to become Silversea Expedition’s fourth ship. With no additional fleet expansion plans currently announced, Combrink believes the rate of new vessels joining the expedition market is likely slowing down in the near future.

“I don’t think we are going to see huge further growth, especially considering the last 18 months. I don’t think there’s a huge desire for many companies to go out and build more tonnage,” he said, pointing out to the fact that many of the recent newbuilds were replacement vessels, replacing old tonnage.

Expedition, on the other hand, will keep on growing, he added. “There’s huge demand, we see it from consumers, other operators and destinations.”

The pandemic may increase the demand for expedition cruising even further, according to Theresa Gatta, Vice President of Sales, North America for Ponant.

“People want to be awakened, they want to have a sense of wonder when traveling … there’s a whole new purposeful mindset out there that is driving the expedition market,” she said, pointing out that bookings continue to rise.

After building numerous new expeditionships, Ponant still sees demand for small and expedition vessels.

“People really want to travel in a purposeful and responsible way. They want a deeper destination of the destinations where they are travelling and there’s no better way to do it then on small ships,” Gatta explained.

Recently, Le Commandant Charcot became the latest ship to join the Ponant fleet. A hybrid LNG icebreaker, the vessel is set to offer cruises to the North Pole and to deeper regions of Antarctica.

“It’s a ship like no other … the strongest passenger ship in the waters today, with an extremely strong hull,” Gatta said, pointing out to the ship design, which includes heated decks and floor-to-ceiling windows. 

With five ships currently in service, Ponant plans to have its entire 12-ship fleet in service by the end of the year.

A highlight for the 2022 deployment is the Kimberley region, in Australia, which is “above and beyond,” according to Gatta.

“When people hear about expedition, they think about cold water, cold weather destinations. But the tropical and subtropical regions are another world for the expedition community,” she said.

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