In March 2018, Sven-Olof Lindblad took a small Swedish icebreaker to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, a remote chain of islands 1,200km from the North Pole. A lifelong explorer and Arctic visitor, it is a place that Lindblad has travelled to countless times before, but this particular trip is etched in his memory.

As Lindblad and his team scythed through the icy waters and trod onto the frozen tundra, Svalbard revealed itself in its purest, most glorious form: a pearly, light-filled landscape at the northernmost tip of the earth.

“I’d been to that part of the world so many times, but it was truly the most amazing time to be there. I was completely stunned by how beautiful it was: the snow-capped mountains, seals and polar bears. The wildlife was tremendous,” Lindblad says, his voice warming as he recalls the harsh beauty of a place home to more bears than people.

It’s a land his father Lars-Eric first encountered in 1966, when he commandeered the first citizen-led expedition to the Arctic, chartering an Argentinian Navy vessel, MS Lapataia, with 56 passengers on board.

Svalbard, and the world around it, has changed a lot since then, its ice caps receding further with every passing year. Since 1971, temperatures in the area have risen by 4°C, five times faster than the global average, opening it up to exploration earlier on in the year than ever before.

“We first started going to that part of the Arctic in the 1970s and we didn’t go until pretty much early August because the ice was too thick,” Lindblad explains. “Some years later we moved into mid-July, then June, and eventually May and so on.”

First launched in 1958, Lindblad expeditions was one of a handful of early entrants to the cruise expeditionary sector, second only to Hapag-Lloyd and Hurtigruten, back when it was for serious wildlife fanatics happy to hole up in old Soviet bunk ships.

Since then, the outfit has established itself as a popular port of call for cruisers looking to explore some of the world’s most remote places, renowned for delivering informative, hands-on tours through Europe, Asia, the Americas, the South Pacific and French Polynesia.

It’s a market that appears to be more popular than ever, albeit one that only represents a niche of the global market, pulling in record numbers of guests and birthing increasingly adventurous itineraries. Meanwhile, alongside established names such as Lindblad and Quark, mainstream cruise lines have joined the party. Celebrity Cruises has its Xpeditions brand, specialising in Galápagos Islands tours, while Crystal Cruises was the first to send a large luxury cruise ship through the Northwest Passage in 2016. The former is hoping to launch its first polar-class expedition yacht, The Endeavour, later this year, one of 10 new durable and ecofriendly vessels originally set to be unveiled in 2020 by different cruise lines.

For Lindblad, while it’s hard to dissect the reasons behind this fast-moving trend, invariably, having a pre-existing blueprint to follow, has helped. “I think us going public had something to do with it,” he says. “All of a sudden people could see what the business model was, and they thought: let’s replicate that.”

That being said, Lindblad Expeditions went public at a time when these voyages were more curiosity voyages than cruises per se, attracting small batches of learned, worldly travellers who were seeking access to places very few had ventured.

These days, the expeditionary circuit is attracting affluent cruisers seeking formative experiences that colour the mind as well as the Instagram feed, while an understanding of how vulnerable certain places are in the face of global warming is drawing people to remote, far-flung locations.

Niche tourism

According to CLIA, trips to Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galápagos Islands and Greenland grew by almost a third between 2017 and 2018, reaching 148,000 passengers; a trend that has been predicted to increase over the next five years.

“There’s certainly a surge of interest in it. I think it’s become pretty clear that what people are looking for now, more than anything, is interesting, authentic experiences,” Lindblad says. “There’s an increased focus on nature, and I think that’s a direct consequence of what’s happening to it. There’s a sense that it’s disappearing.” While some have claimed these trips amount to a commoditisation of natural wonders, and that they put undue pressure on fragile ecosystems, a counter argument consistently articulated by Lindblad and co is that by exposing people to the beauty of these places they will campaign more vociferously to protect them.

Cruise with Lindblad on any one of its itineraries and you will be accompanied by a team of scientists, all on hand to share their expertise in both structured lectures and informal chats. In Antarctica that means spending time in the company of zoologists, learning the nuances of penguin behaviour and polar bear conservation. In the Galápagos Islands, naturalists can talk customers through their efforts to protect the indigenous tortoise population, while a trip to Europe features an ethnomusicologist.

“When [my father] started, the philosophy of the company was very similar to how it is now,” Lindblad says. “The idea was that the world was full of interesting culture, history and nature, and we wanted to expose people to that, and perhaps, as a consequence, make them think differently.”

Risk mitigation

By embracing new technologies, expeditionary outfits can better ensure they don’t come aground and risk fuel spill in these fragile ecosystems. Lindblad’s latest purpose-built polar ship, The Endurance, is a nimble Polar Class five, equipped with a distinctive bow to cut through choppy waves and improve fuel efficiency, with expanded fuel and water tanks for extended periods spent in remote areas.

“I think it’s become pretty clear that what people are looking for now, more than anything, is interesting, authentic experiences. There’s an increased focus on nature, I think that’s a direct consequence of what’s happening to it. There’s a sense that it’s disappearing.”

An impressive addition to the fleet, The Endurance exemplifies where the broader category of expeditionary ship design is heading, as cruise operators seek to build agile, durable vessels that conserve fuel and utilise eco-friendly methods to power their exploration.

When it is released next year, Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot will become the world’s first electric-hybrid polar exploration ship, using liquefied gas in transit, while relying on battery power when stationary.

A French-flagged outfit specialising in luxury expeditions, Ponant, like Silversea, caters for affluent world travellers in search of personal enrichment, creating vessels in which guests can enjoy fine dining, luxury suits and cinema rooms.

Currently scheduled to deliver two new ships in 2020, Le Bellot and Le Jacques Cartier, the company describes its six-strong explorer-class fleet as a new generation of ‘luxury cruise liners’, complete with spas and infinity pools. Meanwhile, sail with Seabourn and you can end a day of kayaking in a restaurant with a menu curated by Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller.

Ships are a means

Asked whether increased competition from these luxury names has ushered in any changes to the company model, Lindblad insists the answer is a resounding no. Instead, he explains that the expeditionary stalwart has tried very hard not to wander too far from its founding principles.

“It’s pretty simple: to me, ships are a tool,” Lindblad says. “I was weaned on the safari business and I spent many years in Africa where we’d move depending on where the wildlife was, so when I think about ships I think of them in the same way. Our whole focus is on the outside and the ships are a means to expose people to that.”

That being said, Lindblad does worry that the expeditionary sector is experiencing something of “an arms race”, where the focus could shift too far from the flora and fauna of these exotic locations towards the amenities on board. “It could get really silly, with people saying how they’ve got the largest suites and so on… but if you’re keeping people busy and doing cool stuff, does it really matter if your room is 20m2 or 50m2?” he asks.

Those travelling with Lindblad still get their fair share of creature comforts: The Endurance comes fitted with infinity-style hot tubs and ocean view saunas, while yoga studios have been specifically installed to avoid the cabin fever that can sometimes prove overwhelming on long arctic voyages.

One thing that has changed is how staff interact with guests, as technology and waning attention spans have forced a rethink in terms of how large portions of information are communicated.

“Once upon a time, you could get an ornithologist standing up there for an hour giving a lecture about every detail of a bird, but people just aren’t going to listen to that anymore, so you adapt to that,” Lindblad says. “People are also more active than they used to be, so you need to build kayaking or long hikes into your itinerary.”

As the sector becomes more competitive than ever before, Lindblad is in no doubt that it is not excessive luxury or gizmos and gadgets that are going to make these ventures successful.

Instead, the core elements of expeditionary travel, such as geographical nous, team-building and ship selection are now more important than ever, along with the small matter of paying acute attention to the relentless demands of guests.

“You have to have a deep understanding of your audience and what matters to them,” Lindblad warns, “because the people that do this thing are paying big money, and they will not forgive you for screwing up their time.

“Doing this consistently well is really hard work, but it’s a privilege to take people to these places and we care about them deeply,” he concludes. “We want to create a partnership between the locations that we visit, the guests that we take care of, and, if the benefits flow in both directions, that’s a good business model.”