There was a time a couple of years ago when cruise ships seemed destined to get bigger and bigger.
The 6,000 passenger mark had been passed and industry watchers began to speculate on just how large it was possible to go.
Meanwhile, the backlash against overtourism was beginning to affect popular ports like Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona; however unfairly, mammoth ships in these ports were giving cruising a bad name. Building small ships, meanwhile, was considered uneconomical.
But the winds of change are blowing. An explosion in demand followed by massive investment in the expedition cruise sector over the last three years has led to a sudden proliferation of small ships. Some are built with ice-toughened hulls and protected viewing areas for polar expedition cruising, but small ship cruising isn’t just about the poles.
Many lines are offering new itineraries and new choices in warmer waters, from the Kimberley to Indonesia and Central America to French Polynesia – tropical spots that are considered natural progressions for travellers who have “done” the poles but still want the vibe and activity of an expedition.
Australian small ship cruise specialist, Cruise Traveller said bookings for expeditions sailing in 2021, are up by 27 per cent. And the Managing Director of the wholesaler and retailer, Craig Bowen said this is a positive sign for the industry.
“Our cruise bookings for 2021 product to the end of March, 2020, are 27 per cent up on the same period last year for 2020 sailings,” Mr Bowen said. “This is a combination of new 2021 bookings and all the re-bookings from cancelled 2020 sailings and I am confident that this pattern will continue over coming months,” he said.
“This trend is evident elsewhere in the industry as well. Clearly, then, pent-up demand will constrict availability in 2021 – particularly for small ships – which is why we are urging our guests to secure their bookings for next year as soon as possible. In fact, we had one guest wanting to make a sizeable booking for a Kimberley expedition but a lack of availability next year pushed the booking to 2022.”
The bonus of visiting these places on a boutique vessel is that the environmental impact is much lower than that of a megaship. New destinations open up to ships small enough to squeeze into tiny ports or places with little infrastructure. Raja Ampat in West Papua is just one case. The Chilean fjords, the smaller Greek islands, the Scottish coast and the Russian Far East are all others.
Ponant is one of the biggest players in the small ship market, with its series of six 184-passenger Explorer-class ships. These aren’t expedition vessels in the classic sense of the word – they don’t go to the poles, for example, as Ponant has other, ice-hardened ships to do that – but offer all the characteristics of expeditions, like Zodiacs and kayaks, and opportunities for hikes, and snorkelling in warm waters.
These sleek little ships have some wonderful features, not least the dreamy Blue Eye underwater multisensory lounge for viewing and listening to the underwater world, as well as an infinity pool on deck and a multi-purpose platform that extends aft and serves as anything from a kayak launch to a deck for a private cocktail party.
Outside the expedition sector, there are other new entrants to the market, bringing out small ships designed to lure the kind of passenger who might normally prefer a luxury boutique hotel. Ritz-Carlton’s new Evrima, launching in June carrying 298 passengers, is a case in point. The ship has six places to eat, a lavish spa and a collaboration with chef Sven Elverfeld of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Aqua. Evrima will sail in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and northern Europe. A sister ship will follow next year.
Scenic, meanwhile, has just announced a new brand, Emerald Yacht Cruises, bringing the informal, affordable Emerald experience to the oceans with the 100-passenger Emerald Azzurra, under construction in Vietnam and destined to sail the Adriatic Coast and Red Sea when it launches in 2021. Scenic’s own newbuild, the recently launched, ultra-luxury Scenic Eclipse, which explores the poles and much in between in considerable style, will be joined by Scenic Eclipse II in 2021.
Meanwhile, Tahiti-based Paul Gauguin Cruises is building two new 230-passenger ships, due to launch in 2022. Sea Cloud Cruises is constructing a three-masted tall ship, Sea Cloud Spirit, sailing the western Mediterranean, Caribbean and Central America. Silversea is raising the bar in the Galapagos Islands with the high-end Silver Origin, launching in August 2020 and carrying 100, while Coral Expeditions’ new Coral Geographer, a sister ship to the new Coral Adventurer, debuts in 2021 spending its maiden season exploring the small islands of the Indian Ocean; the Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and the islands of Indonesia. There’s no question that in cruising, small is suddenly very beautiful indeed.
Small ships launching in 2020 and 2021
Lindblad Expeditions, National Geographic Endurance, 126 passengers