By Jason Leppert May 10, 2021

What to Know About the Post-Pandemic Expedition Cruise Market
Lindblad Expeditions will soon launch its National Geographic Endurance.
Credit: 2021 Lindblad Expeditions

With overall travel interest on the rise, and more cruise lines ramping up operations, travel advisors just need to look at the expedition cruising segment — where some ships are already sailing — to find inspiration.

“Expedition travel is about finding meaning in the world around you, learning, and interacting with your surroundings and fellow guests,” said Steve Smotrys, vice president of sales for Seabourn Cruise Line. “That is what we are creating.”

The brand, which is behind the upcoming Seabourn Venture, offers a great reminder about why we travel, and why we travel specifically by expedition ship. No other cruise experience takes travelers deeper into remote coastal zones and connects them so intimately with nature. And despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the segment is flourishing.

Upcoming Expedition Cruise Ships

There are dozens of new expedition ships coming to market in the next several years, and the list of fresh amenities and itineraries to offer clients is long.

Seabourn is working tirelessly to introduce its first dedicated expedition ship. Seabourn Venture’s shell of a superstructure — already completed up to deck 9 — was just moved via barge to the T. Mariotti shipyard in Genoa, Italy, where the vessel will receive its final outfitting into a bona fide luxury vessel.

Seabourn Venture will set sail in Norway in 2022.
Seabourn Venture will set sail in Norway in 2022.
Credit: 2021 Seabourn Cruise Line

Venture is slated to set sail beginning in Norway in the winter months of 2022, followed by a yet-to-be-named sister ship later in the same year. Both will feature a pair of submarines, 24 exploratory Zodiacs, adventure kayaks and an expert expedition team.

“Even though travel advisors know Seabourn for our Antarctica and Ventures by Seabourn expedition experiences, these purpose-built expedition ships are almost a completely different product,” Smotrys said. “So, those who love Seabourn will love this product, but the opportunity lies with those who may not be selling Seabourn — or cruises in general. There is a huge population of advisors who specialize in experiential travel, such as safaris and other adventures. These expedition sailings are a perfect fit for [their clients].”

Viking will also join the market soon with its Viking Octantis, which was recently floated out (a term referring to the first time a ship touches water) ahead of its January 2022 debut. Its maiden season will traverse Antarctica and North America’s Great Lakes. Then, sister ship Viking Polaris will come online in summer 2022, journeying to Antarctica and the Arctic.

Viking Polaris will sail to Antarctica and the Arctic.
Viking Polaris will sail to Antarctica and the Arctic.
Credit: 2021 Viking

Similarly, newcomer Atlas Ocean Voyages has celebrated the float out of its first ship, World Navigator, in anticipation of its inauguration in July of 2021. Its twin, World Traveller, is also under construction, and will set sail in mid-2022. Three additional sister ships are on the calendar for delivery at the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, veteran expedition cruise lines are by no means sitting out of the market’s massive expansion.Small expedition ships, coupled with further-afield destinations, are considered well placed to lead the resurgence in cruising.

Lindblad Expeditions is awaiting the 2021 launch of its new National Geographic Endurance — complete with its innovative X-Bow for smoother sailing through rough seas — in addition to its National Geographic Resolution, which will also be delivered this year. Both were recently photographed together at the Ulstein Shipyard in Ulsteinvik, Norway, known as the home of the unique prow design.

Even the historic Swan Hellenic brand, a pioneer of expedition cruising back in the 1950s, was itself relaunched last year before embarking on the construction of its all-new expedition fleet. A trio of polar-class vessels will be led by SH Minerva when it is delivered in November 2021, followed by SH Vega in early 2022 and a third larger version by the end of next year.

Impressive Demand for Expedition Cruises

Most important to travel agents is the exceptional demand — pent-up, or otherwise — for expedition cruising. Swan Hellenic reported that reservations have exceeded expectations to the point that Minerva’s inaugural Antarctic “Polar Solar” eclipse voyage has entirely sold out.

“Small expedition ships, coupled with further-afield destinations, are considered well placed to lead the resurgence in cruising,” said Andrea Zito, CEO of Swan Hellenic. “We’re delighted to have inspired a diverse spectrum of curious minds in such numbers and look forward to welcoming them onboard to see what others don’t.”

Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Navigator will debut this summer.
Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Navigator will debut this summer.
Credit: 2021 Atlas Ocean Voyages

Crystal is seeing high yields, as well. Within a day of releasing five of its maiden 10-night Luxury Iceland Expeditions — onboard the new Crystal Endeavor, launching in summer 2021 — bookings were already at more than 50%.

“We are thrilled with the response to Crystal Endeavor’s inaugural sailings in Iceland, as it is clear that luxury travelers — and returning Crystal Society members in particular — are looking forward to traveling again and reconnecting with their onboard Crystal family on our newest, most innovative ship to date,” said Jack Anderson, interim president and CEO of Crystal.

Expedition cruise lines are sharing their excitement over cruising again as a part of their marketing efforts. Atlas Ocean Voyages put together an entire campaign that cleverly plays off the brand’s name: “At Last… Atlas.” Throughout 2021, the social media and national consumer and trade print initiative will feature the messaging, as well as a music video from Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and actress Tamar Davis, who will be performing the iconic song “At Last.”

Current and Future Sailings

For those ready to book now, it is important to point out that expedition cruise travel has already started to resume. Quasar Expeditions, for instance, is back to sailing in the Galapagos Islands, where there’s currently a wildlife bonanza.

“Since there hadn’t been any travelers for six months in 2020, the wildlife has had time to rest, and some have even migrated to other islands,” said Fernando Diez, marketing director of Quasar. “Many visitor sites look the way they did 20 years ago, with animals nesting in the trails. It’s something the first travelers back to the Galapagos in 2021 will get to see that no one else will.”

Lindblad Expeditions is gearing up with plans to start sailing again in the Galapagos and Alaska this June, and the brand is ready to do so as safely as possible.

“Our internal team has spent the last year examining every aspect of our operation to be prepared to operate in the ‘new normal,’” said Sven Lindblad, co-chair of the brand’s board. “Led by our resident medical expert, Dr. David Lorber, we have enlisted the assistance of many health and safety experts and met with authorities in the regions we intend to explore, to ensure we are welcome and meet or exceed their expectations. We will also require that all guests 16 years of age and over be vaccinated prior to traveling onboard.”

UnCruise Adventures is yet another line mandating inoculations for all adult guests and crew. One of its first sailings back after the pandemic will be on the brand’s S.S. Legacy in Alaska later this month.

Offers and Partnerships

Cruise lines are also promoting sailings with offers of bonus inclusions. For all 2021 itineraries, Atlas Ocean Voyages will bundle in a free shore excursion at every port. This rounds out the line’s all-inclusive value proposition, which further encompasses complimentary roundtrip flights, prepaid gratuities, polar parkas, emergency medical evacuation insurance, premium wine and spirits, international beers and coffees, Wi-Fi access, L’Occitane bath amenities and more.

“Atlas Ashore was initially conceived as a limited-time offer, but the strong response from travelers and our valued travel advisor partners convinced us that it should be a fundamental part of our product definition,” said Brandon Townsley, vice president of sales and trade partnerships. “Our All Inclusive All The Way commitment includes most everything and helps make doing business with Atlas easy for travel advisors.”

Crystal Endeavor will sail its maiden journeys in Iceland this summer.
Crystal Endeavor will sail its maiden journeys in Iceland this summer.
Credit: 2021 Crystal

What’s more, expedition cruise lines are broadening their horizons by partnering with other brands to appeal to a larger audience.

Disney has taken to the seas and rivers of the world before, but its Adventures by Disney brand is now launching its first-ever expedition cruises to Antarctica and the Galapagos.Families will be able to explore the southern polar region on charters of Ponant’s L’Austral, Le Boreal and Le Lyrial beginning in late 2021, and the Galapagos Islands onboard the Galapagos Legend in 2022. Disney’s unique brand of narrative travel will focus on ecological storytelling and personal connections with natural wonders, all overseen by dedicated Adventure Guides.

Ponant is also collaborating with Smithsonian Journeys — the travel program of the Smithsonian Institution — for select sailings to Antarctica, Japan, Iceland, the Mediterranean, the British Isles, the Great Lakes and the Norwegian Fjords, starting in 2022. For its first alliance with an expedition line, Smithsonian will dive into destinations’ history, cuisine, language, environment and wildlife, while passengers interact with expert anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and scientists.

“We are thrilled to be teaming up with Ponant to bring the Smithsonian experience to guests onboard the line’s state-of-the-art expedition ships,” said Lynn Cutter, senior vice president of travel for Smithsonian. “As travel begins to resume, we believe guests will be more interested than ever in meaningful and enriching experiences that help them better interpret and understand the places they are exploring.”

Looking to the Future of the Expedition Cruise Market

Fully aware that expedition cruises in the near future are filling up fast, lines are preparing their calendars further out and releasing schedules sooner than before. For years, Ponant has partnered with luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) for exclusive overlays with fewer passengers onboard, and now A&K is renewing the collaboration into 2022-2023 — a season that will include 13 polar and cultural expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic, Japan, Australia, the Baltic Sea, the British Isles, Italy, Greece and Indonesia.

Likewise, Aurora Expeditions has already opened up bookings for its 2022-2023 Antarctica program onboard Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle; Celebrity Cruises announced deployments in the Galapagos on three ships (Celebrity Flora, Celebrity Xpedition and Celebrity Xploration) in 2023; Scenic Eclipse is sailing to Antarctica and South America in 2022-2023; and Seabourn Venture is heading to the Arctic, the Caribbean and Central and South America from May to late October 2022.

“Luxury travelers are inclined to seek out memorable experiences that may have been unavailable just five or 10 years ago,” said Seabourn’s Smotrys. “The focus has clearly shifted from tangible goods to spending on experiences that are much more focused on providing fulfillment and enrichment in people’s lives.”

New Expedition Ships On the Horizon

Le Commandant Charcot , Ponant
Crystal Endeavor, Crystal
Janssonius, Oceanwide Expeditions
National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution, Lindblad Expeditions
Ocean Explorer, Vantage Deluxe World Travel
Ocean Victory, Victory Cruise Lines
Seabourn Venture, Seabourn Cruise Line
SH Minerva, Swan Hellenic
Silver Origin, Silversea Cruises
Sylvia Earle, Aurora Expeditions
Ultramarine, Quark Expeditions
Viking Octantis, Viking
World Navigator, Atlas Ocean Voyages

Ocean Albatros, Albatros Expeditions
Ocean Odyssey, Vantage Deluxe World Travel
SH Vega and Unnamed Ship, Swan Hellenic
Unnamed Ship, Seabourn Cruise Line
Unnamed Pair, Paul Gauguin Cruises
Viking Polaris, Viking
World Seeker and World Traveller, Atlas Ocean Voyages