Expedition cruising likely to rebound stronger than “white ships”

Hurtigruten to operate a trio of ships in Antarctica for 2020/21 season

Polar expedition cruise operator Hurtigruten is anticipating a buoyant 2020/2021 Antarctica season despite the phenomena and global crisis the coronavirus pandemic has caused.

Hurtigruten’s upcoming Antarctica season will see three ships head south for a November launch including its two hybrid battery-powered sister ships, MS Roald Amundsen and the brand-new MS Fridtjof Nansen, along with the freshly retrofitted MS Fram.

Damian Perry, Managing Director of Hurtigruten Asia Pacific, expects the start of the Antarctica program will be dominated by European-based guests who, unlike Australians, don’t have the international travel restrictions enforced.

Presently, the Australian government’s travel ban will potentially be in place until early next year and it is the start of 2021 that has Hurtigruten enthusiastic.

“If our government turns around and says you can travel and people react, it will be fantastic and they can head down [to Antarctica] sooner. But at the moment we just don’t have that indication that the Australian government is going to permit international travel until the end of 2020,” Perry told LATTE.

King penguins, South Georgia (supplied)

Hurtigruten is expecting the start of its Antarctica season to be “a lean operation”, however,  the period will provide the opportunity to ensure improved safety and health protocols are firmly in place for when business picks up.

“From January to March 2021 we would like to believe that Australians will be travelling down there with our other international guests as well which will be very, very exciting.”

Up until mid-March, the past year had witnessed a groundswell in growth from the Australian market for the Norwegian cruise company.

“Our business had boomed. We were going very well. Everything was perfect before this whole COVID-19 phenomena,” Perry remarked.

“We had built fantastic strategic partnerships with key retailers and operators around the country. We put in place a great communications and marketing team and our customer service was at the highest level, MPS scores were booming and our client satisfaction was the highest it had ever been.”

“We’d launched [MS Roald] Amundsen and were about to launch [MS Fritjof] Nansen. Everything was coming along really, really nicely, and the Australian market was responding beautifully, so we had great positioning.”

Kayaking in Antarctica | Image credit: Esther Kokmeijer

While COVID-19 saw most of Hurtigruten’s fleet operations pause and return to Norwegian harbours to be put in a state of “warm stack”, the expedition cruise line has continued to operate two ships along the Norwegian coastline. In coming days, that number will increase to four ships and by September voyages to the Arctic will be back on the cards as part of a phased return to service.

“We still believe the Australian market will be very, very active in the expedition space and that this niche will possibly recover a little bit better and a little bit faster than the larger ‘white ship’ space,” Perry said.

Perry told LATTE that some of the criticism that “big cruises companies” have faced in recent months regarding their handling of COVID-19 has been unbalanced and some operational concerns raised “have not been reasonable at all.”

“But passengers and industry players who know expedition cruises can clearly differentiate between both and I think expedition cruising – and for this market in particular – will do very, very well. We expect quite a significant bounce back in 2021 and through normality in 2022.”

“For 2020/21 there is pent-up demand and feedback from clients has been really positive. Commitment to the brand is really strong so we’re confident it will come back in 2021 and we do feel the 2022 and 2023 will be great years again,” Perry said.

Lead image: Orne Harbor, Antarctica | image credit: Karsten Bidstrup

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