Towards the end of the successful Antarctic season 19/20 for expeditions, a small virus struck relentlessly. Within a few days, almost all expedition providers to Antarctica ended their season and sent their guests home and their guides on forced leave. The hope remained that the situation would improve again by the start of the new season, or at least it would be manageable. But after a completely cancelled Arctic season, the Antarctic season has also fallen victim to Sars-COVID-2.
More and more large and small providers of trips to penguins and icebergs have cancelled or changed now their voyages at the beginning of the season and are rebooking their guests to travel next year. Some of the providers officially cancelled their trips, such as Hurtigruten; others have simply started to contact their guests and travel agencies individually and make rebookings. In doing so, they want to make sure that the guests will be there next year and do not cancel completely. And according to statements by various representatives from the expedition travel industry, this also corresponds to the wish of most guests: rebooking instead of resignation. Many of the trips next season are already well booked so that it will be difficult for new customers to travel with the desired company next year. But there is already the solution for this: booking for the season after next, changing to another company or flexibility on the date of the planned trip. Flexibility is what makes expeditions tick and not just during COVID times.
Some of the companies had cancelled already their Antarctic season in the summer and had offered their customers alternatives next season. Others had hoped that with sophisticated safety and health concepts on board, the effects of COVID-19 would be addressed and thus, they had kept their journeys open for as long as possible. But the rising numbers of cases in Europe, the non-declining numbers in the US and Argentina, and the numerous and strict travel restrictions of many countries now scuttled any burgeoning hope of being able to travel at least between November and February. In addition, countries want to maintain or even tighten their entry restrictions, as in the case of the Falkland Islands, which are currently discussing these topics. As a result, companies that had hoped for a shortened season must now draw a line under their plans. Hurtigruten and G Adventures, who wanted to run from January 2021, have announced that they will cancel the 20/21 season altogether. Larger companies such as Silversea and Seaborne will also not offer trips to Antarctica. Although Silversea has a trip from Ushuaia to Cape Town in February in the program, whether it will actually take place is more than questionable. Other companies that are still hoping that a door will open and that voyages can still be carried out are, for example, Ponant and Lindblad Expeditions. Both already have successfully tested safety concepts on their ships and still have departure dates on their websites. But here, too, the question remains whether guests can even reach the departure points in Argentina and Chile, as both countries still have closed their borders to foreigners (as of 19 October 2020).
Another question that arises, but which is hardly discussed, is whether and which companies will survive this renewed shutdown of a polar season to some extent. After all, there is still optimism and plans for the coming seasons are still being drawn up. But fact is that many companies cannot afford further cancellations if long-term survival is to be ensured.
So the entire Antarctic will be free of tourists? No, a small expedition company in a country currently COVID-free resists closure. New Zealand is lucky to have a sub-Antarctic island world in the backyard and a domestic expedition company that also goes there. Heritage Expeditions therefore offers voyages in local waters for local guests. In order to obtain this approval, the company also had to go through and present numerous health and safety protocols. With success: From November 24 on, New Zealanders will be able to experience their homeland differently. But success has already brought the first imitators to the fore. A large French company now wants to cut off a piece of this part of the Antarctic cake and has submitted plans to the New Zealand authorities to carry out voyages with two ships to the New Zealand sub- and Antarctic world for domestic guests. Another major company also has plans to have at least one ship sail from New Zealand to Australia in February 2021. Whether these two companies will succeed with their applications will be seen.
In addition to the companies that certainly had pictured this Antarctic season differently, guests and guides are also massively affected by the shutdown. For the former, many companies have promised free rebookings (not cancellations notabene) and easy handling when changing to other ships (within the fleet) or other trips. The fact that, despite the COVID pandemic, even more ships and companies are pushing into a market, which is still considered lucrative, makes it easier for guests to fulfil their dream. Provided, of course, that the effects of the pandemic do not lead to even stronger negative economic developments. But for the guides of the expedition travel companies, the cancellation is a disaster, especially economically. After the already cancelled Arctic season, there are now no more months in which income could have been generated. For many, this means that they have to look elsewhere for income opportunities or look for new jobs. And it is unlikely that a new employer will want to give up its employees for months next year so that they can pursue their passion in the polar regions. But this would create a huge gap of experience and knowledge in the industry that cannot be filled easily in the future. Thus, the virus holds its grip on one even without infection. Thus, the virus holds its grip on one even without infection.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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