Small ships = big ships in the Arctic | Polarjournal
Only 15 years ago, ships with 50 passengers were the rule, today they are the exception. Many shipping companies have returned or decommissioned their small ships for economic reasons. Many veteran expeditioners mourn those days and the small ships. Today, only a few providers and shipping companies operate ships with a capacity of 12 – 50 passengers. Picture: Michael Wenger

The expedition cruise industry has been THE booming tourism industry in recent years. More and more people wanted to experience nature and wildlife in the polar regions. Attracted by this, more and more shipping companies were drawn to send their ships to the icy worlds and/or to build new ships suitable for them. However, this has also been accompanied by growth in the size of the ships and also in the range of activities and equipment they offer. But what is now happening to the small expedition ships that were popular in the past? A personal assessment of the future of the little ones in the midst of the big ones.

“O tempora, o mores” lamented the Roman writer and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero over 2,000 years ago about the changing times and ways. Actually fitting even today for the expedition cruise industry. Because when the author of this article (i.e. me, not Cicero) boarded a ship for the first time in 2005 for such a voyage and wrote a voyage report, there were just over 40 passengers on board with him. Nearly 15 years later, I write and read about expedition ships that call themselves “small” while carrying 10 times the number of passengers, yet have the same Arctic areas on the schedule as back then. Plus they offer kayaks, helicopters, submarines, stand-up paddling, massages, yoga, fine dining and other indoor and outdoor activities and amenities. Much of this is not on the agenda for the small expedition ships (not the newly planned superyachts like La Datcha mind you).

Besides the small expedition ships, there are also a few sailing ships in Svalbard that can accommodate a maximum of 30 people. Just like the small motorized vessels, they advertise tranquillity, lots of nature and the possibility of going where the larger ships cannot go. This is one of the biggest advantages for the small ships. Picture: Michael Wenger

Is that a disadvantage these days and thus the death knell for the small ships? No, because despite the question of economic viability, small expedition ships have a niche and therefore a future. Indeed, salvation could come precisely from the growth of the industry and the resulting diversity of types of Arctic visitors. For while the shipping companies with their larger ships are increasingly concentrating on a variety of offers, the small ships that now remain can target their efforts at those guests who place a little more value on proximity to nature than on the furnishings of the dining room; whose attention is focused on the length of time spent ashore rather than the number of landing points approached; who are more concerned with their camera equipment than with the speed of the Internet connection.

Small expedition ships are quite comfortable and equipped with many amenities, with great attention to detail. Often the interiors are a successful blend of style, practicality and comfort like the bar area of the Spirit of Enderby here. Image: Nathan Russ, Heritage Expeditions.

Don’t get me wrong, dear guests: personally, I consider every aspect important, depending on where one sets the priorities. And with the increased number of ships and their offerings, it’s easier today to find exactly what you want. For nature lovers, for whom comfort is only second on the list of priorities for an Arctic voyage, they are more likely to find what they are looking for on small 12- to 50-passenger ships than on a 200-passenger vessel. Also, for photographers who want to spend a lot of time on subjects, on such small ships, they are more likely to meet like-minded people, even non-photographers, who are willing to spend more time in one spot because the situation is just too good to leave (assuming you don’t take space away from subsequent ships). Flexibility is required on all expedition trips, but in my own experience it is more likely with fewer guests, as all guests are more likely to tick similarly. Then there is also the fact that with small groups the family character sets in more quickly than with larger ships. People get to know each other quickly and the formation of a “community of destiny” is quicker (but this also has to do with the guides’ ability to form “bonds” within the group of guests). Also, the speed of adjustment to a change in any situation is simply higher for small vessels, as fewer people are affected. This may be for a quick return to the ship until early wake-ups in the morning due to a special motive.

In the 2020 COVID year, only a few small expedition ships were able to actually carry out their activities. Suddenly declared lockdowns and voyage restrictions, however, demanded quick changes of plans, as for example with the MV “Cape Race”, which had to undertake a quick change from Spitsbergen to Scotland in order to still carry out the voyages. Picture: with friendly permission of the mare publishing house

This year, the flexibility of the expedition tour providers, the guides and also the guests was overly challenged, thanks to COVID and the corresponding measures. The Arctic season turned into a no-go for most shipping companies. A few vendors tried to make the best of the situation and introduced new and seemingly solid security measures. But in fact it was almost only small expedition ships that were able to carry out their voyages in a more or less usual way without having to endure negative headlines. Here, in my opinion, the size of the number of guests was decisive. Firstly, fewer guests (in some cases only 6 guests on board) had to be brought to the departure points and correspondingly fewer guides had to be organised; secondly, with a smaller number of people on board, the likelihood of the virus being introduced is smaller (hence the restriction on numbers); thirdly, it is easier to implement and monitor hygiene and safety regulations on board of a small ship than on a larger ship. Even sudden reintroductions of travel restrictions could still be compensated for and handed flexibly in some cases. For example, the MV “Cape Race” shifted her voyages from Spitsbergen to Scotland and was thus still able to carry out successful voyages of discovery. All in all, however, it is to be hoped that with the coming 2021 the situation will improve again for all providers, no matter how large the ships are, and that they will be able to whisk their guests away to the magic of the Arctic regions. Because, after all, that’s what matters to everyone in the end.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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