Race to the poles

A new battle front for the cruise industry is taking place in these higher latitudes, as super-luxury vessels and reinvented polar class ships come in an explosion of Arctic and Antarctic travel options, writes Steve Jones.

Ernest Shackleton, Captain Scott, Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson. The names roll off the tongue in a manner a cricket fan might list the Australian test match greats of years gone by.

They are names synonymous with exploration and adventure, of courage and heroism, of triumph and tragedy. And just as it beckoned and beguiled these pioneers in the early years of the 20th century — an era known as the heroic age of polar exploration — these icy regions continue to seduce us more than a century later.

According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), 356 Australian tourists out of a global total of 8,210 stepped foot on Antarctic soil, or ice as the case may be, in 1994/95, the first year data was recorded. A decade later that had climbed to 2,295 out of 22,926.

Although numbers dipped during the GFC, only just nudging 2,000 in 2009/10, arrivals have continued to steadily rise. In 2017/18, the number of Aussies who ventured south hit 4,759, a huge 24% increase on the year before.

Taking cruise-only passengers into account– those who sail to Antarctica but don’t go ashore — the numbers climbed from 4,488 in 2016/17 to 6,310 last year, a whopping growth of 40%. These figures gave Australia an 11% share of the near 44,000 who made land globally, and the 58,000 including cruise-only.

While figures for the Arctic are harder to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests demand is also growing for the northern ice fields and the chance to see one of its major drawcards, the polar bear.

According to IAATO, no fewer than 57 vessels headed to Antarctic waters last season, 44 of which had Australians on board. From the lone Aussies on the MY Hans Hansson and Corinthian to the 561 who travelled on Celebrity Infinity and 961 on Holland America Line’s Zaandam, such statistics illustrate the fierce competition that exists in polar cruising. And it’s about to get a whole lot tougher.

Over the next three years, an industry buoyed by an increasing desire for immersive and experiential travel and adventure will welcome no fewer than 27 new-build expedition ships. Not all, of course, will visit polar regions. But many will. And many are being constructed with the cashed-up consumer in mind.

It is this luxury sector where the battle lines are really being drawn, all claiming to cater for true expedition-hungry consumers who are also partial to a spot of on-board opulence.

Not that it seems to bother Silversea, now in its 10th year ofexpedition cruising. Not publicly at any rate.

Conrad Combrink, senior vice president strategic development expeditions and experiences, insisted Silversea was the pioneer of luxury expeditions, with others now trying to play catch up.

“We are, I think, undeniably the leader in luxury expeditions. I don’t think anyone can deny that,” he told travelBulletin. “You now have Ponant, Scenic and others using the word luxury to promote their experiences and that is absolutely fine. Competition is good and the market is definitely not saturated — it’s not even close to being saturated. Even with the number of ships on order it only equates to about 5,000 berths which is roughly the same as one mega liner. There’s room for everyone.”

Relaxed and confident as he is, Combrink acknowledged Silversea will face stiffer competition when the new-builds from Crystal, Scenic and others enter service.

“With more brands offering the same destination, competition will get a little tougher and certainly our clients are very similar in that luxury market,” he said.

To illustrate the nature of Silversea’s challenge, look no further than the bells-and-whistles approach of Scenic and Crystal, whose ships will boast submarines and helicopters when they enter service in January 2019 and August 2020 respectively.

Yet Combrink, predictably maybe, was dismissive of what he has described as “gimmicks”.

Silversea, he said, will let the destination do the talking. “We feel they don’t need distractions. We believe we strike the right balance between the luxury element on the ship and the true destination. We are quite happy with that. That is our model and we will continue to develop that.”

Explaining further, Combrink painted an evocative picture of what awaits tourists to the Great White Continent — and it doesn’t include a helicopter.

“It is an incredibly humbling experience to see a 45-tonne humpback whale come up to your zodiac,” he said. “It is incredibly humbling to see your first iceberg, and to experience the emotion of standing on deck at one in the morning beneath an incredible Antarctic sky. That is what draws people to these regions, and inspires them.

“Every day we are surrounded by noise, and to experience the silence of such a landscape is extraordinary. I dread the day when I’m in Antarctica and I see or hear a helicopter. These destinations don’t need toys.”

Nevertheless, whatever your opinion, such “toys” are coming. And with competition intensifying, eye-catching differentiation is the name of the game.

While much of the additional capacity is heading to established expedition players, the growth of the sector has tempted new entrants to throw their hats into the ring, and expensive hats at that. With such a blank canvas, boundaries are being pushed.

For Crystal Cruises, the construction of the 183m, 200-guest luxury yacht Endeavor, was the “natural response” to demand from super wealthy travellers who want to extend their horizons “without sacrificing the standard of excellence and luxury of the Crystal brand”.

The ship, which makes its first foray to polar regions in January 2021, boasts a submarine, two helicopters, a two-storey solarium and six dining options. It also promises “extreme adventure”, a phrase which may raise eyebrows among the more down-and-dirty operators who will argue they are the true custodians of “real expeditions”.

“I believe Crystal is playing a part in motivating this segment by offering a level of luxury…. that hasn’t been seen before,” Australia and New Zealand vice president and managing director Karen Christensen said. “It will be ideal for the traveller who wants an overall experience that is engrained in luxury and comfort even while in the midst of an extreme adventure. I truly believe this innovative ship will uncover a new class of luxury traveller, those who are looking for that immersive experience but with a flair for adventure and discovery.”

Addressing Combrink’s “gimmick” jibe, Christensen said strict regulations were in place to govern activity in the polar regions. “When and where it is permitted, helicopters will be utilised to provide our guests with an enhanced experience that is truly unforgettable,” she said.

Crystal is not alone in harboring such grand ambitions.

Scenic has described the 228-passenger Eclipse — a second vessel is due in 2020 — as “setting a new benchmark in design, innovation and luxury” that “has to be seen to be believed”. At 168m in length, it is being marketed as the “world’s first discovery yacht” with the brand convinced it will tap into an under-serviced market.

“Scenic founder and owner Glen Moroney identified an opportunity in the market to offer small ship expedition cruising with the very best in luxury and once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” explained Lisa Bolton, Scenic’s general manager of product, luxury cruises and tours. “Thanks to its size, Scenic Eclipse will be able to dock in small ports that take youright into the action of a range of destinations. Our philosophy for Scenic Eclipse is where luxury meets discovery — the conjunction of expedition and luxury cruising where our guests get the best of both worlds.”

As with Crystal, Bolton highlighted Scenic’s helicopter and submarine as key draws in an era where consumers are seeking new experiences. They will offer “a completely new perspective on the world”, she said.

Scenic has also ensured that its helicopters are some of the quietest around, utilizing the H130 model whose sound levels are seven decibels below the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirement, and is quieter than the most restrictive sound limits defined for flights over national parks, animal and nature reserves across the world.

Pushing boundaries in polar cruising has become both metaphoric and literal. As companies strive to out-do each other in ship design and on-board amenities, so too are they looking to expand their geographic reach.

In 2021, French cruise line Ponant will launch what it described as the world’s first luxury icebreaker. It will be last of seven new-builds to join the Ponant fleet in just three years. The 135-suite ship — also featuring a helicopter pad but apparently only for ice navigation purposes — will, as the company claims, become only the second ship with paying passengers to push through to 90 degrees north; the North Pole.

The only vessel with paying passengers currently venturing so far north is Russian scientific icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, Ponant Asia Pacific chairwoman Sarina Bratton told travelBulletin.

“That is our future. More in-depth itineraries, going further north in the Arctic and further south in the Antarctic,” she said. It will also feature a scientific lab, tapping into a growing desire to not just marvel at the polar regions, but to understand them.

“The more knowledge you have about something, the more you become an ambassador,” Bratton said.

The icebreaker is being sold as faster and steadier than many others in the market, providing more flexibility and comfort when mother nature comes knocking in the extreme polar regions.

Bratton welcomed the raft of new product, believing it may spell the end for some of the older vessels plying polar routes.

“I think it’s healthy,” the founder of Orion Expeditions said. “There are some very old ships trading, the average age of the expedition fleet globally is around 32 years. They will start to retire and guests will gravitate to new technologically capable and more environmentally sustainable vessels.”

Less-travelled routes to the frozen south are also on the horizon. While expeditions do leave from Hobart bound for the Ross Sea and the sites of past explorers’ icy makeshift accommodation, such voyages are few compared to the number which head to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Crystal Endeavor‘s inaugural Antarctic voyage will be a 22-day trip taking in the Ross Ice Shelf, while Ponant will also extend its reach into relatively unchartered southern waters.

Christensen said it would provide an “alternative to the Peninsula sailings”, with guests able to visit the huts — sanctuaries may be a better description — left behind by Shackleton, Scott and Mawson.

Silversea, too, has recognised the need to keep developing its itineraries, with Combrink revealing the Silver Explorer will begin operating from New Zealand to the Ross Sea and Commonwealth Bay from 2020.

“That will be a first for us,” he said. “I see people pushing the boundaries that little bit further, exploring different regions.”

Fly cruise is also expected to grow, with exploratory talks underway to improve the currently limited air infrastructure in such remote locations.

Another company looking at the future of polar cruising with anticipation is Australia’s own Aurora Expeditions. Aurora will dispense with the 54-passenger Polar Pioneer next year and welcome the Greg Mortimer, named after the Australian explorer who founded Aurora in 1991.

The ship, the first new-build commissioned by Aurora, will enter service for the 2019/20 Antarctic season. It will carry up to 132 passengers in the Antarctic and 160 in the Arctic and feature X-Bow technology that Aurora claims will make the ship more efficient, faster and smoother.

Managing director Robert Halfpenny said while Aurora does not consider itself a luxury program, it “was beneficial to include a number of features that are comparable to some luxury operators”. Balconies in 65 of its 80 cabins will, at 6.6m2, “be larger than most luxury ships”, he claimed.

“However, we are not afraid to scratch the paint to get us into remote destinations,” Halfpenny added in a light-hearted, though pointed, dig at the luxury end of town.

He claimed Aurora had sold 70% of its debut Antarctic season 18 months in advance and 50% of its 2020 Arctic season.

“Our current issue with the Polar Pioneer is not having the capacity to meet demand,” Halfpenny said. “The X-Bow will also be hugely beneficial. We have 25 years of experience and what excites our expedition leaders is going to places they know about but have not had the opportunity to visit.”

Hurtigruten is also gearing up for expansion with the MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen joining the fleet in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Both will be equipped with hybrid powered engines that, according to the expedition firm, will be the most efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly on the market.

The company has long-pressed its green credentials in fragile environments, a positioning it believes will set it apart from rivals and become “very attractive to travellers worldwide”.

While stressing the quality of its vessels, Hurtigruten Asia Pacific managing director Damian Perry branded the destinations as the “luxury” component of an expedition.

“It’s all about the destinations,” he said. “We operate premium vessels, but there are no butlers, no suites. The only ones wearing tuxedos on an Antarctic trip with us would be the penguins.”

Perry’s view leads to a fundamental question often raised: can luxury really be a true expedition, a genuine down-and-dirty exploration of a destination? Are they not contradictions in terms?

Not according to the luxury operators, or to Intrepid Group which, in combination with Chimu Adventures in which it has a 50% stake, books an estimated 40% of Australians travelling to Antarctica.

For Intrepid Group chief executive James Thornton, the size of ship determines its expedition status.

“I think you can have an expedition regardless of comfort level,” he said. ” But many of the new-builds are larger ships and if you have more than 200 passengers you’ll struggle to call it an expedition. In the Antarctic you can only have 100 people on land at any one point and if the ship is too big it won’t be able to get to the smaller landing spots. For us, we like this focus on luxury because it may mean other ships become available to charter.”

With the popularity of polar exploration on the rise, the general consensus is that future capacity growth is sustainable. As Combrink suggested, there will room for everyone.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean everyone will get it right in terms of product, pricing and itineraries. As for consumers, they will be spoilt for choice like never before. Ships with six restaurants, helicopters and huge balcony cabins? The only things those remarkable early explorers were toying up was a little more rudimentary. Shall we have seal blubber or penguin meat for dinner?

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