Expedition cruising is on the rise and it’s a trend that’s here to stay, changing the focus and destinations of traditional cruise travel.
According to Google search data comparing the interest in expedition cruises from 2019 to 2022, there has been a 51 percent rise in searches about Antarctic cruises and a 47 percent rise in interest for Arctic cruises.
Expeditions aren’t just about traveling to Antarctica or the Arctic; they can range from America’s Great Lakes and Canada’s Northwest Passage to warmer-weather regions of the world, such as the Galapagos Islands or the South Pacific.
Corey Hargarther, Travel Advisor for Dream Vacations – Hargather, Thaler & Associates, said: “Expedition cruising was traditionally served by mostly niche operators. Common destinations included Galapagos, Alaska, the Arctic, and the Antarctic regions. While interest has remained steady across the board, there has been an uptick of clients specifically requesting the Great Lakes. This destination is appealing for our clients residing on the Eastern Seaboard because they can get a luxury experience closer to home.”
Travelers who seek out expedition cruises are going to do so for a few reasons that are often different from traditional cruising: they desire to experience lesser-known destinations, learn about local (and often endangered) wildlife and environments, and often engage in more active or adventurous activities.
“Expedition cruising has become more luxurious over the years and therefore has attracted a broader clientele of those who are not only seeking real adventure but also superb food and service,” said Jeremy Hall, ACC with Cruise Vacations International. “The majority of our expedition cruise clients have already sailed and visited most if not all of the ports you find on classic itineraries.”
“Expedition cruises take them to new destinations and in a much more hands-on and intimate environment,” Hall continued. “Many expedition destinations limit the amount of passengers that are allowed to visit at one time and there is a sense of exclusivity that comes with that. This is another reason why luxury and expedition cruising go so well together.”
Expedition travelers in the past have often been more luxury or high-end travelers, though this may change as the segment grows. Sustainability and an interest in the environment, particularly concern with climate change, can also inspire travelers to seek out visiting destinations such as the Arctic and Antarctica.
TravelPulse checked in with three different cruise lines offering expedition cruises to learn more.
Some, like Hurtigruten Expeditions, have been offering expedition cruises since 1896 – and that’s a true fact! Other cruise lines, such as Viking and Scenic, are more popularly known for their river cruises but have in recent years begun expanding into the expedition cruise segment, each offering something different in their approaches.
Hurtigruten: Playing the Long Game with Expedition Cruises
Hurtigruten literally invented expedition cruising for travelers in 1896 when it offered its first expedition to Svalbard and the Arctic. Since then, it’s become a well-recognized name in the expedition cruising segment, known for its approachable style and scientific focus.
“People want to explore more than even before and many want a unique experience unlike no other, which is exactly what expedition cruising is. A lot of the new players in this market are simply expanding their brands into the Polar regions with new ships and focusing on luxury with a touch of adventure,” said Asta Lassesen, CEO of Hurtigruten Expeditions. “We are a true expedition cruise company, one of very few, and our focus has always been on science and sustainability, not creating a luxury experience, even though our onboard experience can rival many of theirs. There is a market for both the luxury operators and the true expedition cruise companies, although it can easily and quickly become an oversaturated market if they only focus on the Polar regions.”
She says the pandemic has impacted the type of traveler booking Hurtigruten expeditions in a few ways: they’re getting younger and they’re booking closer to their departure dates, unwilling to wait longer for those bucket-list experiences.
She says sustainability and their scientific and approachable guest experiences set them apart from the rest.
“I think our dedication to sustainability truly sets us apart. It has never been a recent buzzword for us – we stopped using heavy fuel oil 15 years ago, eliminated single-use plastic almost five years ago, and introduced the world’s first battery-hybrid-powered cruise ship, of which we now have three in the Hurtigruten Expedition fleet,” Lassesen explained.
“In terms of the guest experience, I would say it’s our science focus that really sets us apart. We were the first to appoint a Chief Scientist and still the only cruise liner to have one,” she continued. “In addition, we were the first to introduce Science Centers onboard, which along with the lecture halls and our Expedition Team onboard, is not only the core of the onboard experience but our overall business.”
“And lastly, we are not a luxury cruise line, we’re an expedition cruise line that provides a high-end experience in terms of superior cabin comfort and a fantastic, sustainable cuisine, but we don’t expect you to dress up when you go for dinner or sit in the bar. So we offer a much more casual take on a luxury experience.”
Looking ahead, Lassesen sees Hurtigruten Expeditions expanding to newer, lesser-visited destinations as offerings for the Arctic and Antarctica continue to grow.
“We’ve been in Antarctica for 20 years now and in the Arctic for much longer than that. Now there’s a surge in new operators in both these regions, which will risk oversaturating the demand. And expedition cruising is so much more than the two Polar regions,” she said. “That’s why we invested in Metropolitan Touring, and will offer four year-round itineraries in the Galapagos from January, just a year after launching [in] the Galapagos. Next year, we will be the only cruise line in West Africa, offering guests a completely different experience to what we’ve traditionally been known for, but taking them to remote islands that are otherwise very difficult to get to and almost impossible to get around, in combination with unique wildlife, fauna and flora.”
Viking Cruises – The “Thinking Person’s” Expedition
Richard Marnell, Viking’s Executive Vice President of Marketing, calls the cruise line’s expedition segment the “thinking person’s expedition,” offering science labs on both of its two expedition ships, a dedicated science team and partnerships with well-known organizations and universities, including NOAA, the University of Cambridge, and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, among others.
Viking Expeditions is only three years old, and offers a very different approach to expedition cruising than other lines, as Marnell explains: “Across the fleet of river, ocean and expedition vessels, our voyages continue to appeal to curious travelers, age 55 and older who are interested in science, history, culture and cuisine.”
Marketed to older travelers, Viking Expeditions offers more comfortable and luxurious accommodations and offerings, such as a spa onboard, as well as a wide range of high-end excursion activities, such as submarine diving experiences.
“Destinations like Antarctica have always been a draw for intrepid travelers, while the Great Lakes are an undiscovered treasure – both rich with opportunity for curious explorers,” continued Marnell. “Now more than ever, travelers are looking to explore unique and beautiful destinations around the world, especially after nearly two years of staying close to home. With our new purpose-built ships, the Viking Octantis and the Viking Polaris, we offer the ideal size for safety, comfort and onboard amenities when visiting these remote destinations, which makes it easier than ever before for travelers to embark on expeditions.”
Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours – Ultra-Luxurious Discovery Voyages
Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours hasn’t had too long of a track record offering expedition cruises, but the brand certainly offers some of the most luxurious offerings around.
Scenic Eclipse, the brand’s first ultra-luxury superyacht, debuted in 2019, built by the brand’s own shipyard in Croatia – but the brand has been offering luxury expeditions as an Australia-based all-inclusive tour operator for 36 years. It first expanded into river cruising throughout Europe and in Asia before expanding into ocean cruises.
“The luxury traveler wants to discover what the world has to offer,” explained Ann Chamberlin, VP Sales USA for Scenic. “They want to go beyond traditional ports of call. And because the size of Eclipse is only 200 guests in the Polar regions and 228 for the non-Polar regions, and the technological advances of that ship not needing an anchor, it can get into these small harbors and ports of call that others can’t get to because they’re older vessels and still on a chain and anchor, disturbing the seabed at the bottom…There is no overtourism, we’re not ruining the seafloor, so we can take our guests further to more interesting places that they’ve never been before.”
The expansion into expedition cruising is largely due to the motivations of the brand’s owner, Glen Moroney, who wanted to make yachting more accessible for the luxury traveler in an all-inclusive way.
“I think the concept that our owner had, Mr. Glen Moroney, was brilliant because it was pre-pandemic, of course, when he got underway with the design of the Eclipse and the Eclipse II, and it was perfect timing as we come out of the pandemic. It is the size of the ship and our offerings that are just perfectly conducive to the new traveler of today.”
The brand offers two different types of expeditions: Expedition Voyages, which tend to be located in Polar regions and offer greater opportunities to learn from a large team of professionals called the Discovery Team; and Discovery Voyages, which are located in warmer-weather locations, complete with a more intimate Specialist Team.
Chamberlin says the pandemic has added a big push for travelers to go explore the world, and without skimping on the comfort and style that luxury travel can provide.
“We’re the newer cruise line in town, being here [in the United States] just over eight years versus 36, what we’re doing here is really an education and training of travel advisors on what we have to offer.”
Because of this, many Americans that travel with Scenic are new to the brand.
“We continue to really rely in the U.S. market on our valued travel advisors because without their expertise, their advice, knowledge and their willingness to learn about our incredible offerings, we wouldn’t be successful,” said Chamberlin.
Expedition Cruising: Here to Stay
Expedition cruising is quickly becoming a much more popular segment of the cruise industry for a variety of reasons, including post-pandemic “revenge travel,” a desire to explore new or different destinations traditional cruising doesn’t allow, and an increased mind towards sustainability and adventure activities.
It’s also here to stay for the long term, as we can see from the number of cruise and river cruise lines that have begun expanding into expedition cruising, all with their unique approaches to the segment.