A two-year hiatus – due to the Covid-19 pandemic – notwithstanding, the pre-pandemic boom in expedition cruises is expected to continue as the opening up of the global cruise industry gathers pace. The numbers tell their own story, with industry trade body the CLIA stating in April 2022 that more than 75% of its member ships had already returned to service with almost all set to be back by late summer.

Against this backdrop, meanwhile, passenger numbers are forecast to exceed pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023. Within this market, one segment that’s set to continue its pre-pandemic boom is the expedition cruising space. Targeted at people looking for adventure, less obvious itineraries and with a scientific curiosity when it comes to the environment, it has undergone a significant evolution in recent years. As Kevin Smith, vice-president of sales at American Queen Voyages (AQV), describes it, the difference between a standard trip and an expedition is coming back with “memories” versus “being transformed”.

Historically, expedition ships were basic, they performed their required tasks but lacked the type of amenities – such as specialised dining facilities and spas – that passengers on more conventional cruises accepted as standard.

Increasingly demanding improvements

Times are changing though, and while customers demand more and companies are improving their offerings, much of the impetus for growth in the expedition cruise space came after a tightening up of international safety regulations in 2017 when the International Maritime Organisation updated its Polar Code. Aimed at vessels sailing in Arctic/Antarctic waters, the Polar Code ensures ships are structurally prepared to cope with thick ice. One consequence of this, however, was that when the new rules came in many of the vessels available at the time could no longer meet the tougher criteria, leading to the sanctioning of purpose-built ships as replacements. And, with more than 40 vessels set be built over the 2018–23 period, the industry is clearly responding.

The IMO’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) is mandatory under both the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). It covers the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue, and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles. Of course, expedition cruises aren’t confined to the waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Indeed, those of a different disposition looking to visit far-flung places have the option of visiting more tropical/temperate climes, such as Papua New Guinea or the Galapagos Islands.

Engaging with local cultures and traditions

What expedition cruises do have in common though, is engaging with local cultures and eye-pleasing landscapes. And guests don’t have to worry about travelling overland where transportation is often less efficient. Worth noting too is that each expedition ship will also carry a number of highly trained and knowledgeable experts primed to inform guests about the region they’re visiting. AQV is an emerging player in this space. Positioning itself as a leader in encounter travel, AQV offers a varied portfolio of North American itineraries and experiences comprised of American Queen Voyages River, American Queen Voyages Lakes & Ocean, and American Queen Voyages Expedition – the latter including new Alaska (with its Ocean Victory ship) and Central America expedition experiences being rolled out this year.

This reflects its widening corporate remit – meaning new ports of call and itineraries – as well as a rebrand of the former American Queen Steamboat Company.

As Smith puts it: “Our expedition cruises offer an entirely different experience than our other voyages. After an expedition cruise aboard Ocean Victory, guests have an entirely new perspective of Alaska.

“What went from a simple bucket list destination turned into a truly once-in-a-lifetime and educational experience that offered more than just views of nature and wildlife.”

He further notes: “Between our knowledgeable expedition team leading kayak adventures and Zodiac expeditions to our California Polytech State University students conducting research, guests leave us after a true immersion into ‘The Last Frontier’.”

Ocean Victory made its debut in May 2022, marking the arrival of the seventh vessel to the AQV fleet sailing between Vancouver, and Sitka, Alaska on 12 and 13-day cruises.

From paddlewheel steamboat to cruise line operator

AQV’s current fleet is a far cry from when founder John Waggoner acquired the paddlewheel steamboat American Queen back in 2011, after the previous owner went bankrupt.

American Queen Steamboat was born, and with subsequent purchases, including the American Empress and American Duchess proving successful, Waggoner eventually bought Victory Cruise Lines from Neils-Erik Lund. This gave him the opportunity to acquire what is now the Ocean Victory, which has the highest Polar Code 6 certification and Ice Class 1A, as well as the highest SOLAS 2012 certification for safety and seaworthiness. Meanwhile, sister ship Ocean Discoverer is set to make her debut (in Alaska) in 2023, marking an expansion for AQV that now takes in destinations as diverse as Canada, New England, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Alaska. AQV is part of the larger Hornblower Group, which represents that company’s overnight cruising division.

In the meantime, the 186-guest Ocean Victory sails the less-travelled regions of Alaska’s Inside Passage where like-minded explorers can deploy kayaks and Zodiacs with expedition leaders, view wildlife from sliding observation platforms and witness marine research by California Polytechnic State University students in real-time.

Reducing the stress of large waves

Created for intimate access, it employs the X-Bow design pioneered by the Norwegian company Ulstein that, in addition to reaping fuel savings, softens the movements in head seas, reduces slamming and vibrations, and increases the comfort and rest for passengers and crews. Meanwhile, the expedition team has partnered with Dr Michelle Fournet, director of the Sound Science Research Collective. Acoustic ecologist Fournet is a leading expert in the communication of North Pacific humpback whales.

Effectively, an extension of their research lab hydrophones are being used on board Zodiacs to listen to the voices of Alaska’s whales in real time. Guests will also learn about and participate in whale tracking through fluke identification (flukes being found on the tails of the whales) by uploading their own photos from the vessel to a scientific database following their seasonal movements. Yet, as Kevin Smith is quick to point out: “Expedition cruises are always subject to itinerary changes due to unforeseen circumstances, such as the weather. Through these challenges, we’ve learned to pivot and work together as a team to give guests that transformative experience they want, regardless of what may come up.

“Whether it be shifting from kayaking to Zodiac expeditions due to ice flow or vice versa, we always pivot with the guest experience in mind. Also, the captain has the luxury of flexibility to go where the whales are (for example),” he adds.

Demographically, the people most drawn to AQV’s expeditions fall in the over-60 age group, according to Smith, though more recently the so-called split-gen groups have increasingly featured. As Smith explains: “This split-gen group is the grandparents with the time and means to embark on an expedition cruise and their grandchildren.”

Lessons have been learnt

As is the case for the industry in general, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided many lessons regarding health protocols. And AQV has been no different. “Our goal is to provide guests with an amazing cruising experience while keeping them safe,” says Smith. “To do this, we created SafeCruise, our enhanced set of health and safety protocols. SafeCruise is our commitment to our guests’ safety and security throughout their entire cruise experience. From pre-boarding to boarding and on board, these processes are in place.”

For example, twice-daily antiviral sanitisation will occur in all public and crew spaces along with overnight sanitisation as well as sanitisation stations. Meanwhile, masks are optional for guests and crew on board, including the embarkation process and while riding shore excursion motor coaches. However, state and local municipalities may implement their own mask requirements. For Smith, the future is bright with a number of new initiatives “coming down the pipe” as he puts it.

“Our rebrand of American Queen Steamboat Company to American Queen Voyages comes with new ports of call, itineraries, and new experiences for our guests. As more and more people look for ‘different’ and one-of-a-kind experiences, we are pleased to have something for everyone.

“Whether this unique experience is a river cruise, lakes and ocean cruise, or expedition cruise, we have an itinerary for them to enjoy.”

Given the long-term optimism regarding the cruising industry at large, Smith’s expectations are unlikely to be misplaced.