The looming threats of global warming and climate change on earth’s ecosystems are also spurring visitation to unspoiled and pristine regions that could potentially erode or disappear.
Longtime operators of expedition cruises agree the niche segment is seeing significant growth today, and more expansion is on tap in coming years. Some two dozen expedition ships are being built for both established operators and new entrants.
'The key to the newcomer and the biggest motivation is the learning and discovery,' said Navin Sawhney, Americas CEO, Ponant, during a Thursday panel at Seatrade Cruise Global.
'The expedition client wants direct contact with the environment and that’s what makes the experience exciting, said Sawhney, as he shared insights the French yacht expeditions cruise line has learned after decades of operating in the niche segment. 'There is a huge consciousness around protecting, learning and conservation that’s driving all of this [interest].'
'It’s never been gone but now this portion of the market is getting larger and larger,' said Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, a 125-year old Norwegian exploration cruise line. 'It’s [attracting] more people than before. It creates bragging rights, too, but it’s also to explore experiences.'
Some factors influencing the uptick in demand include increased wealth and a greater awareness and understanding of expedition cruising among consumers today, said Capt. Ben Lyons, CEO of British Isles-based Expedition Voyage Consultants.
'As the interest has grown it’s spawned all sorts of new activities whether that’s skiing, helicopters or submersibles, and there is more diversity of options so naturally the market is going to respond to that,' Lyons added.
Newer vessels with nicer accommodations and a wider range of on-board amenities are also wooing more new entrants, the industry specialists said.
Looking ahead, one major challenge expedition operators will likely face is how to responsibly manage the additional travelers and new ships coming online to preserve the unique natural resources of the destinations visited.
'As these environments get crowded and as new people enter, there will be pressures of different kinds,' Sawhney noted.
'One of the things that may happen with all this extra capacity on it may drive down rates, which is not something I’m looking forward to, but it would then expose that experience to a broader audience,' added Mark Conroy, managing director, the Americas for luxury small-ship operator Silversea Cruises.
Lyons of Expedition Voyage Consultants said in five years operators will offer more 'exotic toys' on excursions and the industry will become segmented based on vessel size, price and other considerations. And smaller ships will never run out of exciting places to go.
Hurtigruten’s Skjeldam said sustainable efforts will be more of a top priority and expedition ships will be much larger.
Skjeldam concluded while he didn’t foresee the segment becoming mainstream by 2023, it will carry more clout.
'It will be a lot larger part of the cruise industry,' he affirmed.