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Warm water expeditions – observing sacred sites and teamwork with locals

PHOTO: HOLLY PAYNE Warm-water-expedition-cruise.jpg
L-R: Cruise Consultant Liz Gammon, Tourism Western Australia’s Renata Lowe, Colombia57 Tours Travel & Logistics’ Brendan Rayment and Ponant’s Sylviane de Tracey at Seatrade Cruise Global 2024
At the request of local indigenous groups, respectful alternatives to traversing the Horizontal Falls on the coast of the Kimberley region are being explored.

The falls are a striking natural phenomenon, falling horizontally rather than vertically, caused by unique geological elements combined with changing sea levels. The first seven-metre-wide area will be prohibited to tour operators from 2026, as previously reported by Seatrade Cruise, however the Dambimangari have called for the wider 20-metre-wide site to also be restricted from 2028. 

‘We're anticipating that – with the work we've done with the Dambimangari over these years – we'll find ways of more respectful touring and experiences in and around these falls,’ explained Renata Lowe, executive director, destination development at Tourism Western Australia. 

In respect to the traditional owners, some expedition cruise lines, including Ponant and Silversea, immediately abandoned plans to traverse the falls. ‘They're still going to Talbot Bay where you have the Horizontal Falls experience, feeling the power and energy of this surge…,’ Lowe stated. 

The discussion was part of the ‘Warm Weather Expeditions and Uncharted Destinations’ panel at Seatrade Cruise Global last week, moderated by Liz Gammon, cruise consultant, expedition expert and Seatrade Cruise Global's expedition cruising ambassador. 

Overcoming obstacles 

On a remote island of just 70 inhabitants in French Polynesia, Ponant has been working with the local community to find a way of bringing passengers to the paradisiacal site. ‘We would arrive with a ship that has a capacity of 160, so of course, the community was not very much in favour of that,’ conceded the line’s director, cruise research & development, Sylviane de Tracy. 

As a result, a Ponant representative has been in talks with the local mayor to hash out how this challenge can be resolved, ‘For example, split the groups: There will be a morning group that will disembark while the other group remains on board [and] a local person will give a lecture on the islands. And then in the afternoon, we switch again. It's challenging to find solutions, but that's what makes the job so interesting.’ 

One of the biggest obstacles for cruise lines seeking to expedition in remote, warm water areas is identifying the rightful owner of land where cruise lines aim to disembark their passengers. The process can be convoluted and involves rigorous engagement with the local community ‘to meet the right local players,’ according to de Tracy. 

She told Seatrade Cruise, ‘For a lot of our itineraries in Honduras or Belize, it proved to be quite challenging to find the right people.’ Ponant was looking to return to areas it had last visited 30 years ago and since then, the key players had changed. To Ponan’t shock, some communities were reluctant to welcome the cruise line back. ‘There were some communities that didn’t want us back and it was by finding out the reason that we could solve the issue. Basically, the wrong people had been paid in the past and we were thinking we had paid the right people. So, it’s of the utmost importance to go out there… and really meet the people and find out what didn't work well 30 years ago. It's all about communication.’ 

Naturally, ‘The other challenge is: How do we pay them, because those smallest communities can’t issue you an invoice, you can’t ask them for a purchase order… so that’s another problem,’ stated de Tracy. 

‘Sensible alternatives’ to crime 

Ponant passengers will have the chance to work with the National Trust to restore native plant species decimated due to non-native black rats, since eradicated, on some remote islands of Anguilla. By helping to clear paths and by laying seeds, they will contribute to the restoration of the ecosystem and support the return of endemic bird species. 

In addition to citizen science initiatives in warm water expedition zones, in some areas, tourism has the potential to protect people as well as planet. ‘Colombia does have a problem with a crop that, unfortunately, there's a high demand for in the world, and we have to live with that on a daily basis,’ commented Brendan Rayment, commercial director, Colombia57 Tours Travel & Logistics. ‘What we want to do, through tourism, is provide alternatives to people that are sensible alternatives.’ 

Colombia57 has been giving back to the community through education, including building schools, providing uniforms and computers for classrooms. Rayment believes expedition cruising can offer young people a vision that will lead them to ‘look at different paths in life.’ In the past, it has arranged for pupils to have lunch and a tour on board a cruise ship as a means to inspire.  

Colombia57 recently worked with Lindblad National Geographic to develop a brand-new itinerary to include ports and communities on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, between Panama and Cartagena, previously unvisited by any cruise ship. Among the many highlights, from San Antero, passengers were able to interact with the indigenous Zenú. Responsible for creating the first Colombian national sombrero (sombrero vueltiao,) passengers were able to participate in making handicrafts alongside the Zenú people. 

The trouble with Zodiacs 

In the US, challenges with Zodiac use and local boat operators due to regulations and restrictions can make utilising these vessels ‘a complicated and expensive affair,’ according to de Tracy. 

‘In the US, if you're a non US flagged ship, you're not allowed to use your Zodiacs. The Zodiacs either have to be registered in the US or they have to be driven by US pilots.’

As for using local boat operators, ‘Of course, we'd like to work with them, because it's important to involve the local community in developing products. But often there are not enough local boats, or they're not in very good shape, or they are not insured… Or they don't have life jackets – or there are simply not enough life jackets.’ She continues, ‘There, we also need to negotiate with the local boat owners, maybe use their expertise, but not their boats.’ 

The panellists also touched on including authentic local touches (including beverages, shows, etc.) in expedition activities, striking a balance between sustainable tourism and community development, hiring and training local people to deliver experiences, arranging cultural presentations involving music/dance, and embracing opportunities for locals to share stories of their ancestors.

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