Whether it is searching for polar bears in the Arctic Circle or walking on glaciers in Greenland, whale watching in Antarctica, or paddleboarding and snorkelling among rare species in the Galápagos Islands, expedition cruises offer travellers the opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime moments and explore remote, hard-to-reach destinations.
With more guests looking to tick such items off their bucket lists, existing brands expanding their fleets and more operators joining the sector for the first time, expedition cruise is now the fastest-growing sector of the cruise industry, according to Akvile Marozaite, CEO of Expedition Cruise Network (ECN).
“The sector has doubled in size over just the past few years,” she says, explaining that this is why ECN decided to establish a commercial business-to-business membership organisation to connect expedition cruise operators with travel trade professionals in 2023.
“There was nothing quite like the ECN in the market when we launched, but after we consulted several expedition cruise lines it became apparent there was a strong desire for the sector to have its own dedicated place as the market continued to develop and mature,” says Marozaite. “Our mission is to grow and promote the expedition cruise sector to travellers worldwide and become its voice in the wider industry, seeking to represent it in an authentic, trustworthy and consistent manner.”
ECN offers memberships for both expedition cruise operators and travel trade professionals.
“Ship operators gain access to a travel trade community interested in selling expedition cruising,” says Marozaite. “We have a great range of expedition cruise members from around the world, including big, recognisable brands and small, niche operators who are specialists in their field.”
Meanwhile, travel trade members can access training content, an expedition cruise operator directory, learn about different destinations, access a centralised digital brochures rack, gain special rates, sign up to ECN and industry events, and more.”
“Expedition cruise sellers are very diverse and include tour operators, travel designers, home workers, independent agents and luxury, cruise and adventure specialists, so we designed ECN to bring all these unique businesses together,” says Marozaite. “We provide something of interest to anyone looking to sell or develop their knowledge of expedition cruises. In 2023, the key focus is to deliver value to our members through various online events including the most extensive webinar series in the sector and the first expedition cruise exclusive virtual conference in September, to be hosted in association with TTG. Our long-term plans include in-person events, an expanded webinar programme, and continuous enhancements of our current offerings.”
Another of ECN’s key focuses for 2023 and beyond is to help the expedition cruise sector operate more sustainably and responsibly.
“We recognise that sustainable marine travel is an urgent task to accomplish, and that the industry still has a long way to go to achieve net-zero goals set out by the United Nations (UN) for 2050, but expedition operators are leading the way to a more sustainable cruise tourism future,” says Marozaite.
She explains that many expedition cruise brands are already making significant strides in tackling various environmental issues, citing examples such as Quark Expeditions, which is working towards eliminating onboard waste, and carbon-neutral company AE Expeditions, which is seeking to become a Corp B organisation in 2024.
“The newbuilds that are replacing old ships are optimised to use the best and most efficient technology available today to make them quieter and more efficient, thereby reducing their environmental impact,” says Marozaite. “For example, the innovative X-bow hull developed by Ulstein Design & Solutions has been used on vessels in the Albatros Expeditions, AE Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions fleets. Meanwhile, operators such as Hurtigruten Norway and Ponant are not only spending millions of dollars on research and development projects to develop carbon neutral ships, but they have also committed to introduce such vessels by 2030. This is 20 years earlier than the UN’s net zero goals.”
Expedition operators also proactively advocate the need for environmental and societal stewardship in the ecologically sensitive environments and destinations their ships visit.
“Respect for the environment is embedded in the DNA of the expedition cruise sector,” says Marozaite. “While conventional cruise ships continue to become larger each year, expedition ships remain relatively small. Most operators voluntarily self-regulate through organisations like International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators and the Association of Arctic Tour Operators, and where regulations do not apply, they often extend good practices of wildlife viewing and engagement with local communities in their own standard operating procedures.”
Many expedition operators also host activities to advance scientific research onboard their vessels. “The projects would otherwise be unlikely to occur at the same frequency due to high research costs and difficulty accessing remote destinations such as Antarctica or the Arctic,” says Marozaite. “Through citizen science projects onboard the ships and the work of organisations such as ORCA, we’re learning about the movement and high concentration areas of marine life, so we can adapt ship speeds to reduce strikes.”
While ECN is predominantly focused on promoting and expanding the expedition cruise sector, it is also committed to engaging with cruise brands and the travel trade community on the complex aspects of sustainability.
“Our growth must be achieved hand-in-hand with the ambitions of the expedition cruise sector to become a fully sustainable form of travel.” explains Marozaite. “We’ll establish tools to help the travel trade community talk confidently and authentically with their clients about sustainability in the context of the expedition cruising industry. And, wherever possible, we’ll help expedition cruise brands to reduce their impact on the unique destinations they visit and avoid issues such as overcrowding.”
ECN will prioritise sustainability internally too. “We have an overall aim to become a carbon-neutral organisation within three years,” says Marozaite. “We’ll look at everything from our supply chain activities to fair pay and diversity and inclusion for new hires.”
To demonstrate its commitment to these goals, ECN hosted a dedicated webinar on sustainability in the context of expedition cruising within the first three months of establishing the network.
“We also created a sustainability survey for our expedition cruise operator members that we shared with the trade media and our partners,” adds Marozaite. “Plus, we have joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and are looking at ways to work closer with this organisation.”
Likewise, ECN is exploring opportunities to collaborate with Latin American Travel Association and similar organisations. “We are also looking at how we can become advocates for more diversity, equality and inclusion in the sector,” says Marozaite. “Although it gets less press coverage, this is as much of a sustainability issue as the environmental concerns of the industry.”
Despite the efforts expedition cruise operators are making to decrease their individual and collective environmental footprints, many question whether the cruise industry can ever truly be sustainable, citing issues such as emissions, noise pollution, sewage, waste, impact on marine wildlife and overcrowding in destinations. Marozaite acknowledges that it is “really tough” to allay these concerns.
“There’s an economic argument – according to World Travel & Tourism Council’s Environmental and Social Research, travel and tourism in general accounted for 8.1 per cent of gas emissions worldwide in 2019, but it also contributed 10.3 per cent of global GDP and supported one in 10 jobs,” she says. “Expedition cruise ships are typically small, and in a well-managed destination, they are generally not the major culprits of overcrowding. In fact, destinations such as Greenland prefer expedition cruise passengers as they tend to contribute more per capita to local communities than larger ships.
“Travel can be, and often is, a force for good, and expedition ships that sail to some of the world’s most truly unique destinations offer transformational experiences to their passengers, helping them come home as better global citizens. However, more can and should be done, and the future of the cruise industry will depend on collaboration and the whole ecosystem pulling its weight together.”
Guests will play a vital role in driving the transition to a more environmentally sustainable future, too.
“Customers have the economic power because they can choose which companies to spend their money with,” says Marozaite. “There has certainly been a shift towards a desire for more sustainable travel options, and this will ultimately drive further innovation.”
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.