The Next Big Thing: Expedition Cruises


Published Sep 4, 2017 6:10 PM by Allan E. Jordan

The next “big thing” in cruising may not be big at all. Mirroring the global surge in adventure tourism, the cruise industry is preparing to introduce 15 expedition ships over the next two years. In fact, a fifth of all the new cruise ships on order are designed for expedition travel, which historically has been the smallest segment of the market.  

At least eight owners have announced plans, with 20 new expedition ships due by 2021. Collectively, they represent more an investment of over $2.5 billion and will create over 4,400 new berths. While that might seem small compared to the 17 mega cruise ships on order that each can accommodate 5,000 passengers, these expedition operators are spending a staggering $650 thousand per berth, more than twice the industry average. 

Expedition cruising is not new to the industry; introduced in 1969, the Lindblad Explorer was the first of the modern exploration cruise ships. While the segment has grown, it remains dominated by specialized companies. The larger cruise lines mostly ignored the segment, although Celebrity Cruises, owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, maintained an operation in the Galapagos. Silversea Cruises operated an expedition ship alongside its luxury cruise fleet, and Hurtigruten offered exploration trips in addition to its traditional coastal voyages. 

Recently, however, both Celebrity and Silversea expanded these niche operations with the purchase of additional small ships and later this year, Silversea is also relaunching one of its original luxury cruise ships as an ice-strengthened expedition ship. In addition, Seabourn Cruise Line will send the Seabourn Quest on trips to Patagonia and the Antarctic starting in November 2017.

Leading the new wave of ships in mid-2018 will be Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen, which is being promoted as the first cruise ship to feature hybrid propulsion. She will have supplemental electrical propulsion, and a later sister ship will have a full hybrid propulsion system.  

French operator Ponant will also introduce its new Explorer class with clean ship technologies. Adding to its current fleet of four luxurious ships, Ponant will introduce four new high-end luxury ships, two in mid-2018 and two more in mid-2019. Quark Expeditions will launch its new World Explorer at the end of 2018, and the German Hapag-Lloyd Cruises will introduce the sister ships Hanseatic nature and Hanseatic inspiration in 2019.

Cruise lines from other parts of the industry are also looking to break into the expedition market. Scenic, which currently operates river cruises in Germany, France, Portugal, Russia and Asia, will be launching the Scenic Eclipse. Crystal Cruises, known for its luxury ocean going cruises and its more recent addition of a yacht, river and air cruises, also plans to launch the first of three polar class megayacht expedition ships, the Crystal Endeavor, in mid-2019.

As these new ships enter the market, they will each feature new levels of passenger luxury previously unknown in the segment such as Hurtigruten’s recently announced plan to introduce underwater drones on its expedition ships. The Ponant Explorers will each feature a multi-sensory underwater lounge complete with two portholes, three underwater cameras and a unique sound and motion system. Quark’s World Explorer will have a glass-domed observation lounge, while Hapag’s sister ships will have two retractable glass-floored balconies.  

Possibly the most unique design, however, was put forth by SunStone Ships which entered into a framework agreement in March 2017 with China Merchants Industry Holdings for four expeditions ships and options for an additional six vessels. Employing the combined talents of Ulstein Design & Solutions, Tomas Tillberg Design International and Mäkinen, the X-Bow ships aim to offer new levels of passenger comfort. Australia’s Aurora Expeditions has announced plans to deploy the first of these new ships in late 2019.

Many observers believe there is still more orders to come in the near term for the expedition segment.