The future of cruises is smaller and more purpose-driven

January 23, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

Times have been tough for the travel industry, and perhaps no sector has felt it worse since the beginning of the pandemic than the cruise industry. The CDC, in December, even went so far as to warn would-be travelers not to go on any cruise at all during the Omicron surge.

Even when the winter COVID surge plateaus, it could take some time for travelers to return to cruise ships in the way they would to airplanes and hotels. But there are draws that cruise operators could develop better to bring these passengers back to their ships—namely smaller cruises with fewer passengers, sailing more sustainable ships that are respectful of their destinations and environments, and maintaining a level of luxury so that the passengers don’t miss the mainland (at least not too much).

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve really seen interest in the luxury cruise sector grow. Some of that has to do with a number of cruisers beginning to mature out of their usual big-ship cruise experience now that they have more disposable income, greater time to spend traveling and, simply, different travel preferences,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a Tripadvisor company. “But we’re also seeing luxury interest continuing to grow because many travelers are looking for a more intimate experience and more diverse itinerary options—something that we started to see more of following the start of the pandemic.”

Expedition cruises, McDaniel says, used to mostly be known for their incredible destination and excursion offerings, and less for the ships on which they sailed—most were bare bones, and seen simply as a vessel to a destination. Now, because cruises are often one of the best ways to visit bucket list destinations like Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands, established liners are adding more luxury amenities to those more adventurous tours.

“So you get the best of both worlds: a once-in-a-lifetime adventure paired with a five-star onboard experience. And most new ships also have a focus on the latest sustainability technologies and efforts, which is top of mind both for the cruise lines and their guests,” McDaniel says. “Because of that, we’ve seen fantastic new ships launched by luxury lines, as well as mainstream lines also dipping their toes into the luxury waters—whether introducing a more private experience on their larger ships, or launching their own dedicated luxury vessels.”

Hurtigruten Expeditions is chartering the MS Santa Cruz II as part of its long-term deal with Ecuador-based Metropolitan Touring for its new voyages to the Galápagos Islands.
Courtesy of Hurtigruten Group

Starting this month, Hurtigruten Expeditions launched a new program around the Galápagos Islands, the first in the company’s history. In December, the cruise liner announced that it will double the offering with three new, year-round itineraries. The launch couldn’t be timed better as tourism interest picks up again in the archipelago as the marine reserve around the Galápagos was just expanded to help protect endangered endemic and migratory species, swelling from approximately 53,000 square miles to 76,000 square miles.

Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten Group, tells Fortune that the operator has been wanting to explore the Galápagos for a long time, describing it as the perfect destination for smaller ships for a variety of reasons. The islands are some of the most protected in the world, so that naturally comes with certain requirements and conditions. For instance, the ship has to be Ecuadorian-registered, and the captain and crew have to be Ecuadorian, as well.

“A major part of our focus on the Galápagos Islands will always be the science, knowledge, and experience. And we have an unrivaled team of expedition leaders and naturalists that can share their knowledge with our guests and give them a more immersive experience,” Skjeldam says. “We offer a wide range of activities to match guests’ many different levels of fitness—ranging from paddle boards to kayaks to glass bottom boats—on top of our standard excursions, which include walks, zodiac rides, snorkeling, and hikes.”

All Hurtigruten Expeditions cruises to Galápagos will be carbon-neutral. In partnership with Metropolitan Touring, one of the largest tour operators in South America, guests will set sail on the newly renovated MS Santa Cruz II, which recently received a full luxury upgrade for all of its suites, cabins, lounges, dining rooms, and other public areas.

The battery-hybrid powered MS Roald Amundsen explores Orne Harbour, Antarctica.
Oscar Farrera

Founded in 1893, Norway-based Hurtigruten Group, the parent company of Hurtigruten Expeditions, is putting sustainability at the forefront of what influences how itineraries are planned and how its cruise ships are constructed and upgraded. With its fleet of custom-built expedition cruise ships (much smaller than what you’d find sailing the Caribbean or Mediterranean), Hurtigruten Expeditions takes passengers to more than 250 destinations in over 30 countries worldwide.

“Travelers these days have a greater sense of awareness about the complex climate problems our planet is facing, so the pandemic has accelerated the trend of the conscious traveler. Many more travelers are choosing their travel company or cruise liners based on their attitude and commitments towards sustainability,” Skjeldam says. “Everyone in the travel industry needs to adapt to reflect this change or risk losing business and relevancy. We have seen more and more inquiries coming in from guests about our [environmental, social, and governance] commitments, and I feel that is a progressive and positive development since the pandemic on this topic.”

Hurtigruten Group used the lockdown periods as an opportunity to upgrade its ships, Skjeldam notes. All seven of Hurtigruten Norwegian’s Coastal Express ships, which explore Norway’s majestic fjords, are undergoing significant upgrades, expected to be completed by 2023. The Coastal Express ships have already been fitted with shore-power connectivity to fully eliminate emissions when connected in port. Across the seven ships, Hurtigruten says the upgrades will reduce CO2 emissions by 25%, and cut noxious emissions by up to 80%.

Hurtigruten Svalbard, the company unit dedicated to the eponymous region famed for being a hotspot (so to speak) for seeing the Northern Lights, also teamed up with marine power supplier Volvo Penta to test a new hybrid vessel, which will allow guests to experience the wonders of the Arctic archipelago without disturbing the habitat around them.

And pre-pandemic, in 2019, Hurtigruten added the MS Roald Amundsen to its fleet, the world’s first battery-hybrid powered cruise ship. Constructed with the intent to demonstrate hybrid propulsion on large ships is possible, the state-of-the-art vessel features new and environmentally sustainable hybrid technology to reduce fuel consumption. (Hurtigruten banned heavy fuel oil on its ships more than a decade ago, and over the last five years, it banned single-use plastic.)

“Sustainability is at the core of everything we do at Hurtigruten Group. It has been long before the pandemic started,” Skjeldam says. “We have been creating value for Norwegian coastal communities since 1893 and care for all the communities we visit, whether it be in South America or Svalbard, so it influences everything we do and is very much part of our heritage.”

The MS Nordnorge sailing in Hjørundfjorden, a fjord in the traditional district of Sunnmøre in Møre og Romsdal county, Norway. While also a full-service luxury passenger cruise, the ship continues the tradition of carrying cargo and local passengers, a vital part of everyday life along the remote coast.
Fabrice Milochau

According to an October 2021 survey of TripIt customers, more than half consider political, environmental, and social issues when they travel. And 11% of respondents said they have a cruise planned in the year ahead. Tripit found millennials are especially more environmentally-conscious when it comes to travel, being twice as likely (16%) to consider the impact of their travel-related carbon emissions than Gen Xers (7%) or baby boomers and older (8%).

“Many people are rethinking how they travel,” says Jen Moyse, senior director of product at TripIt from Concur. Top issues when booking travel include the ethics of traveling to a destination, (i.e. over-tourism) and the impact to the local community. “These values could impact how people travel moving forward as they consider their options. Travelers may choose cruises that have a lower carbon footprint or brands that have programs to revitalize or maintain the ecosystems in which they operate.”

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