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How some yacht charters are taking the place of cruises

July 31, 2021, 2:30 PM UTC

The changing tides of maritime travel have left the cruise industry without its ballast. Similar to the fate of airlines, COVID-19 caused major cruise lines to take on billions of dollars in debt, sell off portions of their fleets, and cut staff to succumb to the pandemic’s burdens.

Now, even with strict CDC guidelines in place, large companies—such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival—that carry thousands of guests at a time are struggling to make a full comeback. Smaller expedition liners and yachts, on the other hand, are coasting the open seas with record numbers.

“The desire to explore beyond the expected destinations has led to a boom in expedition vessels across the industry, as expeditions are above all flexible,” says Navin Sawhney, CEO of the Americas for PONANT, whose largest ship (the forthcoming Le Commandant-Charcot) will accommodate 270 passengers. “[Our] small ship size allows us to sail to destinations where other vessels do not venture. We’re seeing a surge in interest to destinations such as Iceland, Spitzbergen, and Antarctica.” The luxury liner commenced its operations on June 16, 2021 in Iceland and currently focuses on single destinations—including Greece, France, Italy, and Croatia—to avoid multi-country port policies.

Viking Ocean Cruises—with ships ranging from 190-guest river vessels to all-veranda 930-guest ocean ships—launched its Welcome Back journeys this summer exclusively for vaccinated guests. Similar to PONANT, itineraries keep within the boundaries of single countries to ease complicated, ever-evolving COVID restrictions. Hurtigruten, an expedition tour company, includes journeys to the north and south Arctic regions. During COVID, it sailed at 30% capacity on each ship. A tiny fraction, considering its largest ship holds 530 guests. Most routes remained the same, except for cancelations to Alaska and Canada due to border restrictions. Yet, bookings continue to rise because of their faraway adventures.

“One thing that is truly noticeable, and has been for quite a while now, is that people’s bucket list travel plans have changed drastically,” says Anders Lindström, head of public relations and communications for the Americas at Hurtigruten. “Rather than saying they want to go somewhere in the next five to 10 years, people are booking it now and want to experience them sooner rather than later.” As a result, the company is experiencing record bookings for 2022, far surpassing its 2019 bookings. 

And then there are yacht charters, which have gained popularity thanks to privacy, reduced risk of exposure, manageable health procedures, and the ability to navigate port regulations and testing easily. “Given the small size of the groups on board, the logistics can be much simpler than you’d find on larger vessels, or there might be more opportunities within the existing regulations for smaller vessels like yachts to enter,” says Ben Lyons, CEO of EYOS Expeditions.

Generally, restrictions from local port authorities differ for small yachts due to fewer people disembarking. Given this, it’s easier to move from port to port at the passengers’ will, including places not accessible for larger ships. “On a yacht, you are working with your own interests, schedule, and comfort level,” Lyons says. “I think during COVID, people want as much control and surety as possible. And that is certainly found on a yacht.” EYOS has seen an uptick of family, multi-generation gatherings on its yacht and expedition ships to quieter destinations like the Scottish Isles, along with research teams chartering to Greenland and Antarctica. “These are areas that are hard to get to conventionally—long driving and lots of ferries to get around—and the yacht is the perfect vehicle to explore and get around with ease.”

Whereas a typical summer attracts hoards of cruise ships, yachts, and sailboats to the Mediterranean, the U.S. waters, including the Bahamas and New England, topped seasonal requests for Fraser, a worldwide yacht service that has sold and bought boats, and managed charters for 72 years. “We kept very busy with boats remaining near U.S. territories,” says Raphael Sauleau, CEO of Fraser, who has also witnessed the pure joy of friends and family reconvene on sea after the separation of COVID. “They were in very high demand among U.S. customers because getting to Europe was not easy.”

Sauleau also underscores the swell of veteran cruisers jumping ship to Fraser’s yachts, both in charter and sales since COVID began. Toward the end of the second quarter, Fraser’s sales increased 146.4% from 2020 and 92% from 2019.

“With COVID, the yachts are the destination,” he says. From day-to-day passengers gather, disconnect from the rigors of land life, and set sail to wherever they want when they want. “You wake up in the morning and decide where’s next.” Even if that might simply be a magic show on deck while the open waters beckon the next adventure.

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