Exploris is entering the polar travel market with a very French-speaking product to stand out in this competitive and controversial sector.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) lists 322 sites open to visitors around the Antarctic continent. During the last tourist season, there were around 320,000 individual visits, 27,000 individual kayak trips and 16,000 people took an icy bath in the sea. This type of cruising is on the rise – slowed by the Covid – and set a new record last season. Exploris, a new French cruise line, is betting on its place in this flourishing, competitive and controversial sector.
Yesterday, the company took possession of its first ship Exploris One, formerly Silver Explorer, chartered from the American company Silver Sea. Initially, we wanted to build a ship – we had the plans – and the tender was even almost finalised when Covid arrived,” Exploris vice-president Éric Lustman tells PolarJournal. Our investors got cold feet. But there were boats for sale, like Silver Explorer. It belonged to a German investment fund that wanted to sell it. Silver Sea had other development plans and didn’t buy it.
The ship convinced Phillipe Videau, director of Exploris. “At this price, a ship of this quality, designed for this type of cruise and maintained, is not common. He bought it,” adds Éric Lustman. “It was a good opportunity to launch the company.” Phillipe Videau is a former merchant navy sailor, one of the founders of the Ponant company, which he left in 2016 when it was bought by François Pinault.
To differentiate itself, Exploris will be offering French-speaking voyages from December 23. The lectures given on board will be in French, which is also the language of the on-board staff. “It’s a way of maximising the experience,” he explains. “It’s very pleasant when the educational and scientific explanations are given in your own language. According to IAATO, the French represent 3% of the Antarctic market. Some Canadians and Swiss are also French speakers, accounting for 5% and 2% of last season’s customers respectively.
“Overall, one out of every two cruise passengers is North American, with the French market lagging behind in Europe. The Germans lead the way, followed by the Italians and the Spanish,” explains Véronique Mondou, geographer and lecturer at the University of Angers. “Entertainment cruising is having a hard time catching on in France; they want discovery and stopovers, which is why the poles are working so well. In Antarctica, the French are over-represented in relation to their share of world cruises.”
So French-speaking cruises. “It’s all the more important when you’re on a small ship,” he adds. Silver Explorer, now Exploris One, is 108 metres long with 60 cabins and 12 suites. It is a luxury ship with a panoramic lounge, a fitness and wellness area and an outdoor jacuzzi. It can carry 144 passengers, but the company wants to limit the number of passengers to 120.
The ship flies the RIF (Registre International Français) flag. This ensures better social protection for the sailors, better than that of French ships registered in Wallis and Futuna, such as the 12 Ponant ships. “We want to see a loyal crew who are happy to be here,” adds Phillipe Videau.
The company is committed to supporting local populations through employment. Two Brazilians from the favelas of São Paulo training in the hotel trade will be on board for three months,” explains the company’s vice-president. “We’ll have officers from African countries and we’ll be hiring young Inuit to guide cruises in Greenland. That’s what we want to do on our own small scale.”
Exploris, however, operates in an economic sector criticized for its environmental impact. Clean Arctic Alliance focuses on pollution from the maritime sector, especially soot emissions. These are deposited on the ice and accelerate melting. “We’re working on the maritime sector in general, urging it to adopt alternative fuels to heavy fuel oil in the Arctic,” says Dr Sian Prior, Senior Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance. “If we had global regulation of soot emissions at the level of the International Maritime Organization, that would be the most effective approach.”
For two different WWF working groups, it’s also important to regulate tourist activity at the poles. “We need a clearer, more robust framework through the Antarctic Treaty System for managing this increasing threat to Antarctic wildlife and the environment,” says Rod Downie of the UK WWF. “We don’t want to see this tourism banned. In Greenland, local people make a living from it. We’d like to see as much interaction as possible with the local economy, for example by consuming locally. What’s important is that it’s as sustainable as possible,” says Jan Dusik of WWF’s UK branch.
“A territory is an economic balance, and mono-activity is deadly,” explains Marie-Noëlle Rimaud, director of the EXCELIA higher education study centre, which specialises in sustainable tourism. Greenland is a small country with a population of 57,000: they have fishing, but it’s in freefall, and they’ve refused to rely on mining, so tourism remains one of the essential pillars.”
Camille Lin, PolarJournal
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