It felt like we had the jungle to ourselves.

As we explored Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, we spotted rare birds, spider monkeys—even a sloth and her baby among the rainforest trees.

It was one of many experiences I had on a 32-passenger expedition cruise aboard the Greg Mortimer, operated by Australia’s Aurora Expeditions.

During the 13-day cruise, we crossed the Panama Canal and snorkeled among loggerhead turtles in Panama’s UNESCO-listed Coiba National Park. Deep in the dense Panamanian jungle, we also met members of the indigenous Embera tribe.

Greg Mortimer of Aurora Expeditions in Costa Rica. Its smaller size allows it to explore coastlines inaccessible to large cruise ships.

Source: Carlo Raciti

Built for the polar regions, the ship was the ship’s first foray into tropical waters as companies like Aurora respond to growing demand for expedition cruises.

Instagram posts—which often feature trips to Antarctica—may have given expedition cruises more publicity, but this form of cruising isn’t new.

Development of expedition cruise

American company Lindblad Expeditions began taking travelers to Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands in the mid-1960s.

The company specializes in expedition cruises that differ from regular cruises by focusing on exploring isolated, less visited or inaccessible destinations. Smaller ships also allow for itinerary flexibility, meaning the captain can slow down so guests can spot polar bears or whale sharks.

Aurora Expeditions has been plying the frozen waters of Antarctica since the cruise line chartered basic Russian icebreakers to reach the icy continent in the early 1990s.

“Bathrooms were shared and we hung our clothes over the cabins to dry,” said Bronwyn Stephenson, a veteran of the Aurora expedition.

Cabin on Greg Mortimer.

Source: Carlo Raciti

With its spacious cabins, sumptuous library and lecture hall, Greg Mortimer is a far cry from these original expedition cruise ships.

Today, there is fierce competition among expedition cruise lines to launch more technologically advanced vessels and secure talent on board. Lindblad recently recruited underwater archaeologist Mensun Bound, who discovered ancient shipwrecks, and former NASA chief scientist Robert Bindschadler to educate passengers.

Demand since the pandemic

Aurora Expeditions marketing director Hayley Peacock-Gower said there has been a significant shift towards immersive, experiential travel since the pandemic. As travelers demonstrate a growing interest in nature, wildlife and cultural tourism, expedition cruise lines have responded to the challenge with additional and diverse itineraries.

Aurora’s Hayley Peacock-Gower said the company was seeing increasing interest in the Arctic. Its East Greenland Explorer “will try to break through to the northernmost tip of Greenland, both as Aurora and as the first cruising expedition,” she said.

Source: Aurora Expeditions

Noah Brodsky, Chief Commercial Officer of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, described expedition cruising as “the breakthrough travel trend of the decade.”

“There’s something truly special and transformative about experiencing far-flung destinations alongside a small group of like-minded people,” he told CNBC.

Reservations through the roof

Lindblad had its biggest booking day ever on Jan. 3, bringing in about $5.6 million in sales, according to a company representative.

Destinations in demand this year include Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, the Arctic and Antarctica, according to a representative, while interest in Costa Rica is up 54% from 2019.

The company also launched new routes to Greenland, French Polynesia and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

An increasing number of people no longer want a run-of-the-mill vacation.

James Cole

founder, Panache Cruises

James Cole, founder of a British travel agency Panache Cruisessaid that expedition cruises have seen the biggest growth in the travel sector in a decade – from around 67,000 passengers in 2012 to 367,557 in 2022.

“More and more people don’t want a run-of-the-mill holiday anymore,” he said. “People crave adventure … there’s a certain amount of romanticism that goes back to the days of the great explorers like Hillary, Cousteau and Shackleton.”

Who runs expedition cruises?

Most of the demand for expedition cruises comes from the over-55 age group, namely semi-retirees and retirees who have the time and resources, Cole said.

But he noted, “We’re seeing more families entering the market.”

Gen Xers and Millennials represent a smaller percentage of clients. “It’s the ‘experience’ and the ‘adventure’ that drives their interest. The sailing aspect is really a secondary dimension,” noted Cole.

An expedition cruise is also a good option for the growing number of solo travelers.

I hadn’t visited Central and South America before, mostly because deciding which countries to visit and planning a solo trip felt overwhelming and complicated. As a woman, I was also concerned about safety. The Aurora cruise was an ideal introduction, with shore excursions led by on-board experts and dedicated local guides.

Higher prices, longer cruises

Plush ships, experts on board and fewer passengers translate into higher prices than regular cruises. Expedition cruises often start around $1,000 per person per day. Trips usually last between eight and 15 days – although some can last a full month.

While conventional cruises can host thousands of people at a time, companies like the Secret Atlas polar microcruise can only take 12 cruisers at a time.

Cruisers from Greg Mortimer meet the Embera people in Panama.

Source: Carlo Raciti

But the push for more comfort and luxury in the industry is causing some expedition cruises to get bigger, said company co-founder Andrew Marsh.

“Unfortunately, this meant that the new expedition cruise ships got bigger and the expedition itself was sacrificed,” he told CNBC.

Environmental and cultural impact

Although smaller in scale, expedition cruises have faced criticism for polluting the oceans, introducing microbes to sensitive environments and colliding with large mammals such as whales.

To address some of these issues, luxury travel agency Abercrombie & Kent is chartering the luxury icebreaker Le Commandant Charcot for an expedition to the North Pole next year.

“To reduce emissions to the lowest possible level, this ship uses Ponant LNG as fuel,” said Stefanie Schmudde, the company’s vice president of product development and operations. “The vessel also uses hybrid operation with batteries to handle load fluctuations.”

A shell photographed in the jungles of Costa Rica during an expedition along the coast.

Source: Carlo Raciti

In February, Aurora and Sylvia Earle led an Antarctic climate expedition on a ship named after the famous oceanographer. The aim was to raise public and government awareness of the environmental importance of Antarctica.

Aurora Expeditions’ Peacock-Gower said the company worked with 117 climate ambassadors aged 12 to 88 to formulate eight climate resolutions designed to achieve net zero emissions by 2035.

“Travel is always the best teacher and we offer the opportunity to enrich our passengers’ curiosity … on and off the ship,” she said.

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