The fast-moving market of expedition cruises

The segment has continued to boom in recent months, with numerous operators ordering new ships. Michele Witthaus finds out more

The fast-moving market of expedition cruises
An artist’s rendering of Scenic Luxury Tours & Cruises’ Scenic Eclipse

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

One of the longstanding expedition brands committing to newbuilds is TUI-owned Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. In July 2018, the company signed a contract for a third ship with the Norwegian Vard shipyard, a subsidiary of the Fincantieri group. The Hanseatic spirit will join the fleet in 2021, with the distinction of being the fleet’s first ‘adults-only’ ship. Identical sisters Hanseatic nature and Hanseatic inspiration will be delivered in 2019. The ships will be technically and structurally equipped to cruise the polar regions, as well as warmer rivers such as the Amazon. 

“The expedition sector has always been a very strong and essential part of our company structure,” says Karl J. Pojer, the line’s CEO. “Most of our cruises are booked out months, or even years in advance. Lately, the market for expedition cruises has expanded fast and the market potential is high: right now the demand is three times higher than the offer.” 

Pojer describes the decision to extend the brand’s capacity to meet this growing demand as a strategic move. “Grouping our vessels in an expedition class is also based on the idea that even if the new ships are each a little different in style, our guests can expect the same DNA and the same quality-standards onboard for which Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is known.”

Vard was chosen as the shipbuilder after its team “strongly convinced” Hapag-Lloyd of its professionality and flexibility.  “The shipyard has one of Europe’s most modern productions at its disposal and is very experienced in building special vessels,” explains Pojer. “Currently the progress on the construction phase of both newbuilds is proving extremely successful.”

Another company that has chosen Vard for its new Explorer-class expedition craft is Ponant, which will expand its fleet to 12 ships by 2021, in pursuit of its philosophy of ‘sailing to places where others do not venture’. Following the 2018 deliveries of Le Lapérouse and Le Champlain, newbuilds Le Bougainville and Le Dumont d’ Urville will join the fleet in 2019, followed by Le Bellot and Le Surville in 2020.  

All of the 131-metre-long Explorer-class ships will be ice-class certified and run on Cleanship technology. They will incorporate a multi-sensorial underwater space, The Blue Eye lounge, which is built within the hull beneath the water line to allow guests to view underwater life.

In addition, Ponant is also currently building the world’s first ice-breaking luxury cruise ship at Vard. The 30,000gt hybrid vessel will carry 270 guests, 16 zodiacs and two helicopters and is being built at a cost of US$324 million. 

Lindblad Expeditions is building a new polar expedition cruise ship, National Geographic Endurance, at the Ulstein Group’s Crist shipyard in Gdynia, Poland. With delivery promised for early 2020, the new ship will be Polar Class 5 ice-rated, which will allow it to explore extensively in regions with pack ice as well as far-northern destinations in the Arctic. This July, the company revealed it also plans to order a second purpose-built polar expedition cruise ship, which is expected to be delivered in 2021.

Oceanwide Expeditions also has a polar expedition ship on order to join its fleet in May 2019. The 196-passenger Hondius is under construction at the Brodosplit shipyard in Croatia and will be Polar Class 6 certified for extreme conditions in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Mystic Cruises’ new expedition vessel, the 126-metre-long, 200-passenger World Explorer is due in October 2018 following construction at the Portugal-based WestSea Yard (part of the Martifer Group). Built on a Rolls-Royce technical platform, it is the first ship of a new series. Quark Expeditions will operate the vessel in its first season in Antarctica. 

The Asia-Pacific region will be the focus for Coral Expeditions’ newbuild, Coral Adventurer, due in 2019. The fourth expedition vessel to join the fleet, the 93.4-metre-long, 120-passenger ship is being built at Vard’s Vung Tau yard in Vietnam and will feature active stabilisers to reduce roll in rough seas.

Luxury yacht cruising and expedition cruising come together in the Damen SeaXplorer range, which has introduced a 55-metre ‘go anywhere, do anything’ superyacht option. The International Maritime Organization Polar Code-compliant 1,090gt vessel with helideck accommodates 12 guests in six staterooms and offers 30 days of autonomy in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Features include tender embarkation from within a 12-metre slipway. Damen has already sold two larger vessels from the same range. 

In another sign of the growing importance of the expedition segment, Damen and T. Mariotti have entered into a joint venture – Mariotti Damen Cruise. The new entity’s first project is the construction of two ultra-luxury expedition vessels for Seabourn.

“The expedition sector has seen an incredible number of newbuilding orders in the last years, with all the most important cruise companies deciding to enter into this market, which is considered to be very profitable and highly demanded by guests,” says Marco Ghiglione, T. Mariotti’s managing director. “The ultra-luxury feature is not yet present in any available expedition cruise ship already delivered or under construction.”

Ghiglione believes that the synergy with Damen will boost both companies’ capabilities. “In a scenario where companies are merging to establish big groups, the partnership between Mariotti and Damen is thought to strengthen both companies under a common brand, and offer shipowners an alternative solution,” he says. “The partnership will represent a complementary fusion of expertise and facilities. It will offer our current and prospective clients access to a comprehensive suite of shipbuilding services and capabilities in terms of high quality, sustainable vessels. The long-lasting relationship developed with T. Mariotti in previous construction projects, mixed with Damen’s intention to move into the cruise market, represent for Seabourn the perfect occasion for choosing an alternative way of building its luxury vessels.”

Damen will be involved in hull construction, while T. Mariotti will be focused on the completion and outfitting. Delivery of the first of the 170-metre, 23,000gt vessels, which will meet Polar Class 6 standards, is set for June 2021, with the second due in May 2022.

The expedition boom has not been plain sailing for all operators. Hurtigruten’s expansion of its expedition capacity has run into difficulties with delays on the construction of its expedition ship, Roald Amundsen, which had its July 2018 delivery date deferred to May 2019 due to the complexity of the build at Kleven Verft. Sister ship Fridtjof Nansen will also be delayed as a result. The 530-passenger hybrid propulsion sister ships will incorporate technology that will enable part of their journeys to be made on battery-generated electric power. Hurtigruten describes the vessels as ‘the world’s greenest, safest and most advanced expedition ships’.

Scenic Eclipse, the first ocean cruise ship for Scenic Luxury Tours & Cruises, has also suffered delays to its planned 2018 delivery and will debut in January 2019. The ‘discovery yacht’ and her identical sister ship Scenic Eclipse II are being built at Uljanik shipyard in Pula, Croatia and will be equipped to visit polar destinations.

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Michele Witthaus
By Michele Witthaus
Tuesday, February 19, 2019