Experiential travel sparks growth of Antarctica cruising

Experiential travel sparks growth of Antarctica cruising

Sailings to Antarctica, a small but lucrative cruise niche,
are getting new attention as demand for unusual experiences grows, especially
in combination with luxury accommodations that weren’t previously available
there.

A relative handful of people visit Antarctica in a year — fewer, in fact, than go on a single ship the
size of the Oasis of the Seas in three months.

But the number of people trying the seventh continent is
surging, prompting new equipment and services from the small-ship companies
that are allowed to bring guests to the relatively unspoiled landscapes.

Humans have been going to Antarctica for less than 200
years. The first organized tourism excursion happened in 1966 when Lars-Eric
Lindblad cruised there on a chartered Argentine navy ship.

Since then, the company he founded, Lindblad Expeditions,
has come a long way. Next year, it plans to introduce the 126-passenger
National Geographic Endurance, a ship with far more modern comforts than the
Argentine navy could provide.

Among the most anticipated features of the Endurance will be
two “igloos”: clear, domed structures built of triangular supports that will
sit on an upper deck and provide a unique atmospheric experience.

Lindblad’s National Geographic Endurance will feature two clear igloos designed to provide a unique perspective on the Antarctic region.

Lindblad spokeswoman Patty Disken-Cahill said the igloos
will offer guests “a well-protected and private area to enjoy the outdoor
perspective on the spectacular landscape of the polar regions.” Each will
feature LED lighting and a two-person bed with comforters for extra warmth, she
said, adding, “Drinks will be served.”

Disken-Cahill said details of booking the igloos are still
being worked out, but Lindblad is not planning to offer reservation of the
igloos prior to departure, nor is it planning to charge guests for their use.

The Endurance, named for polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s
masted sailing ship, which famously sank in 1915 on an Antarctica expedition,
is now being finished at a Norwegian shipyard and is expected to be ready for
the 2020-2021 Antarctic season.

Another new way to get to Antarctica will be coming in 2021
from Silversea Cruises: the Antarctica Bridge, a business-class jet service
that will enable passengers to avoid the two-day sailing each way across the
Drake Passage between South America and the tip of Antarctica.

Ships crossing the Drake can experience some of the roughest
sea conditions anywhere. Silversea’s service on 12 departures of its Silver
Explorer in 2020-2021 will skip the roiling waters, flying instead over 670
miles in two hours on a jet specially modified to land on King George Island,
about 75 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s senior vice president of tour
operating, expedition and destination management, said, “Antarctica Bridge is
perfect for time-conscious travelers, as it will immerse guests into the White
Continent in a shorter time frame.” 

Convenience comes at a price, however. The Antarctica Bridge
will cost a couple $17,500 each, about $6,000 more than the typical entry-level
Antarctic voyage.

Also new in 2021 will be Le Commandant Charcot, the first
ship from French line Ponant custom-built for polar exploration.

A glacier wall in Antarctica, where the front of a glacier meets the ocean. Large pieces calve off to become icebergs.

A glacier wall in Antarctica, where the front of a glacier meets the ocean. Large pieces calve off to become icebergs. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

The 270-passenger ship will be strengthened to Polar Class 2
standards, an unusually durable construction that enables “year-round operation
in moderate multi-year ice conditions,” according to the International
Association of Classification Societies’ polar rules.

That should give the Ponant ship maximum flexibility in
navigating in Antarctica.

Time, distance and cost make Antarctica a small market for
cruising, as does the requirement observed by polar tour operators that vessels
carrying more than 500 passengers cannot land them on the continent.

But interest has been steadily growing. According to the
International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), 40,665 tourists
landed in Antarctica in the 2018-2019 season, which lasts from November to
March, a 60% increase over the 25,341 who landed in the 2014-15 season.

The additional traffic has prompted concerns of overtourism
in one of the most pristine areas of the globe, but the IAATO at its May 2019
meeting adopted additional measures to manage growth.

“Antarctica receives relatively few visitors compared with
other destinations, but its unique qualities require rigorous safeguards,” said
Mark van der Hulst, chairman of the IAATO’s executive committee.

Measures adopted by the group, whose members include almost
all cruise lines that go to Antarctica, set out rules to prevent whale strikes
in food-rich Antarctic waters, more stringent restrictions on the commercial
use of remotely piloted drones, robust adjustments to visitor guidelines for
activities on the Antarctic Peninsula and approval to expand research into the
health of penguin populations at visitor sites.

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