PHOTO: Two polar bears, one adult and one juvenile, on an ice floe. (photo via Flickr/sheilapic76)
The Lindblad family name is closely associated with adventure travel and especially conservation. Lars-Eric Lindblad, a pioneer in expedition travel, guided some of the first tourist groups to areas such as the Galapagos and Antarctica. His son, Sven Lindblad, founded Lindblad Expeditions, which is a top expedition cruise line today.
Sven came to cruising as a naturalist who wanted to help people discover the wonders of the wild regions of the planet and the history and culture that makes them so precious. Before launching an expedition company, Sven Lindblad spent time in Africa as a photographer and assisting on a documentary on the destruction of the continent's rainforests.
Lindblad Expeditions, which traces its roots to 1979, was one of the first adventure cruise lines. Now, it finds itself in the middle of a period of sudden expansion in adventure cruising. This leaves many of the original players, such as Lindblad, wary of what this might mean for the pristine and remote regions and the overall travel experience.
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Expedition cruising accounts for about 1 percent of the overall cruise industry passenger count. However, new ships are being built or refurbished to offer cruising to the Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland and Galapagos, for example. Celebrity Cruise Line has added two ships to its Galapagos fleet, and Hurtigruten is building two hybrid ships that will hold up to 530 passengers and sail in the Amazon, Arctic and Antarctica.
"Our little niche in the industry is expanding rapidly," said Ben Lyons, CEO of Expedition Voyage Consultants, who moderated a panel at Seatrade in Fort Lauderdale discussing the future of expedition cruising.
Lindblad, the CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, says he would prefer to bring even smaller groups to these regions but that won't work economically. The largest of his fleet's dozen ships holds 148 passengers.
He said he appreciates why there is a growing desire to get to these places and have these adventures.
"A larger number of people are interested in experiences," Lindblad said. "There is a migration away from accumulating things."
He notes that there will be a lot of new ships entering this small community in 2018 and 2019. "There will be an explosion of choices," he said.
Also, with the growing fragility of the arctic regions and increasing passenger numbers, regulations may change to reduce the number of daily landings ships can make to one per day instead of two.
Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, says that new technology will be key in allowing people to have these experiences while preserving the environment.
"Innovation will play an important part in reducing emissions in the Arctic and Antarctica," he said. Hurtigruten's new hybrid ships, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, coming in 2018 and 2019, will be able to switch to power generated from battery packs, allowing for a serious reduction in emissions and sound when sailing in pristine regions, as well as fuel conservation.
"These will be the most-green and safest expedition ships out there," Skjeldam said. "Our guests don't want to be part of the problem, they want to be part of the solution."
Waste management and water treatment must also be a constant focus of improvement, he said.
"We can't let any ships built for Caribbean waters come into Arctic waters. They have to be purpose-built," he said.
Operators of the small ships sailing in these regions also said that expedition cruising simply might not be for everyone and that to try to make these destinations commodities or a simple way to check off a "bucket list" item is a hazardous way of thinking.
The right motivation for expedition cruising is essential, says Navin Sawhney, CEO of Americas for Ponant.
Sawhney said the goal for these trips should be learning and reflection, direct engagement, finding out about natural history, to travel with like-minded people and aid in sustaining the environment.
"Small is beautiful in this particular environment," he said.
Lindblad said the aesthetics in the arctic regions also suffer greatly when cruise ships are all around, spoiling the natural views. "The passenger experience will be diminished," he said.
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Thus, the dilemma remains: How to balance the growth in a responsible and economically feasible way. These are businesses after all, and they have to make money or they will not be around to take people to have these experiences.
"I like the idea of growth," Lindblad said. "Travelers getting exposed to the world is a good thing. We have to know about our relationship to the planet, and travel is a good way to do that.
"My business is based on a desire to imbue people with the wonders of the natural world.
"I just have mixed feelings about this level of growth."
Skjeldam also points to the needs of the residents in the places these ships venture.
"These regions need tourism. People live in the Arctic, Greenland and Svalbard (an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole).
"It needs to be sustainable."