The expedition cruise market is booming as a growing number of operators look to cater for travellers who want to see and experience the world in new and more immersive ways. However, as the sector continues to expand, so does the definition of an expedition cruise. This is leading some to believe the term is becoming overused and that some ‘expedition’ ships may not offer expeditions at all.
“We’re seeing several ‘expedition’ vessels entering the market that we would not consider to be expedition ships,” says Niels-Erik Lund, CEO of SunStone Ships, and a renowned expedition cruise expert. “For example, there are vessels with capacity for 300-400 passengers, but we don’t feel that you can provide a true expedition product with this size. We also see elegant upscale ships of 180-190 metres in length but, again, these are not the right type of ship for the expedition market.”
For SunStone, there are several practical attributes that a ship must have to be considered an expedition cruise vessel. “Our main criterion is size – an expedition vessel should ideally be less than 125 metres in length, but certainly no longer than 140 metres,” says Lund. “This enables operators to sail into small bays and fjords in remote regions.”
In addition, ships should carry fewer than 200 passengers. “Rules in places like the Antarctic prevent more than 100 passengers from landing onshore at a time,” he explains. “You can typically take half the passengers ashore while the other half are cruising in Zodiacs and then switch. This gives all passengers ample time to view and explore – both on the water and onshore – which boosts guest satisfaction levels.”
Lund adds that the other top criteria for expedition ships are specialist onboard equipment and knowledgeable expedition staff. While desirable for many, luxury interiors are not essential. “At the true end of the expedition market, guests are content with a small room with no balcony, as long as they are able to witness incredible views outside,” he says. “Of course, there will always be guests who want to pay for a larger cabin with a balcony and upgraded amenities.”
Lund predicts that guests’ differing expectations of expedition cruises will eventually lead to market segmentation. Certainly, there are already significantly different categories of expedition ships available on the market today and there is more variation on the way.
“I believe that the market can sustain many types of expedition cruise product – from the basic backpacker experience to the more contemporary luxury cruises,” he says. “However, it’s important that guests fully understand what type of expedition they’re purchasing. They need to know that some ships will only offer small porthole cabins and limited onboard facilities. Fortunately, our passengers are well-educated and can tell the difference between an authentic expedition ship and a cruise that might just be called one. The travel industry also knows the difference and can guide passengers accordingly.”
SunStone is currently building its own fleet of seven next-generation expedition cruise ships, all of which will be chartered out to third-party operators on long-term leases. Technically designed by Norway-based Ulstein Design & Solutions, the Infinity-class vessels will be built by China Merchants Heavy Industry shipyard and will be 104 metres in length and accommodate fewer than 200 guests. The first in the series, Greg Mortimer, joined Aurora Expeditions’ fleet in summer 2019, receiving rave reviews.
“Technically, all seven ships will be the same – they are Polar Code 6 vessels with X-Bow hulls, balcony cabins, Rolls-Royce zero-speed stabilisers, five Zodiac loading ports, and systems for dynamic positioning and Safe Return to Port,” says Lund. “However, there will be countless small variations between the ships’ interior structures and design schemes. The ships’ total capacity will range from 130 to 190 guests and will have different restaurants, bars and lounges, while two vessels of the vessels will have two-level atriums and lounges.”
Many of the internal changes can be attributed to SunStone’s decision to allow those chartering the ships to largely control their aesthetic appearance.
“SunStone developed several general arrangements plans with Tomas Tillberg Design, including several concepts for different cabins, lounges, bars, restaurants and the other public spaces,” says Lund.
“However, the charterer of the vessel will decide how many cabins and suites they want, how they want to configure the public areas and which colour schemes, furnishings and interior design style to use. Some will be very minimalistic with clean and light colours, whereas others will have a darker and more elegant look. We won’t interfere in this process if the charterer’s requests are reasonable and fit within a general marketable design.”
Ocean Victory, which will be the next Infinity-class ship to launch, will sail for Albatros Expeditions in the winter seasons and Victory Cruises in the summer seasons, and have both external and internal differences to Greg Mortimer. “The main external structural difference is that Ocean Victory has a bow observation deck,” says Lund. “She will also have a beautiful deck with an infinity pool and an adjacent bar and outside lounge. Plus, her top-deck restaurant will have fully openable windows, giving the option to convert it into an al fresco dining venue.”
SunStone aims to launch Ocean Victory and two other Infinity-class ships – Ocean Explorer and Sylvia Earle – in 2021, with Ocean Odyssey, Ocean Discoverer and Ocean Albatros following in 2022. However, like many industries, SunStone and the wider expedition cruise sector experienced a hiatus in early 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. All expedition ships are expected to be laid up for the entire summer 2020 season, which could significantly impact the future growth of the industry.
“Prior to Covid-19 we expected 2022 and 2023 to be big growth years with more capacity coming into the market than passenger expansion,” he says. “Now we can only hope that operators may return to somewhat normal operations for the Antarctic season. Unfortunately, we could also see some companies cancelling newbuild projects or shipyards going bankrupt, which may completely change the marketplace in the coming years.”
However, Lund remains confident that the expedition sector has a positive future. “This niche will keep on growing because it offers unrivalled adventures.”
This article was first published in the 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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