Big Reductions on Small Ships
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Big Reductions on Small Ships

We have seen plenty of offers from the main cruise lines to attract business. But the small ship and expedition business seems to have been having an even worse time of heading into this recession.
Recently, we have seen $2,000 air credits, free flights to Antarctica, 40% reductions and two for one offers from several small ship or expedition companies.
Quark Expeditions of Norwalk, Connecticut, last month cancelled its entire 2009 Arctic icebreaker season with the Kapitan Khlebnikov while Cruise West of Seattle announced the withdrawal of three ships from its Alaska fleet, two of which will remain in lay up.
Elsewhere, Oceanwide Expeditions of Vlissingen has delayed by several months the introduction of its new Plancius, as has GAP Adventures of Toronto its new ship Expedition, both now being converted for expedition service, while Hurtigruten of Narvik has cut back to one ship in Antarctica.

Quark Expeditions

Although there has been a large amount of consolidation in the expedition voyage business, with TUI Travel taking over Quark Expeditions, Peregrine Adventures and Clipper Cruise Line's non-US flag operations, this industry has had a particularly hard time of it.
While cruise lines have been happy to get targeted volumes, admittedly at much lower fares and yields, expedition companies have been desperately seeking to attract enough business.

Quark Expeditions has been operating the 112-berth Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Canadian Arctic, traversing the Northwest Passage and other waters every summer for the last fifteen years. This year, however, perhaps because it is now under TUI ownership, decisions have been taken in a different way and her entire 2009 season has been cancelled because of lower than projected bookings. The Khlebnikov remains scheduled for a series of Antarctic departures in October/December 2009 however.

Quark has also cancelled its June 14th North Pole departure in the chartered 128-berth Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, although this still leaves two North Pole departures on sale. And one August Spitsbergen voyage by the 104-berth Akademik Vavilov has also been cancelled.

Quark had earlier offered reductions of up to 40% on two immediate voyages with light bookings. Now, on new bookings for spot-prompt departures this month (February 2009), it is offering $2,000 air credits on half a dozen Antarctic departures by the Akademik Ioffe (110 berths), Clipper Adventurer (122), Lyubov Orlova (110) and Ocean Nova (68), something unheard of in past years.

Late last August, Quark had offered free flights on one early November departure, worth $3,000 per couple from North America or $5,000 from Europe. These were and are bargain opportunities for those who can afford to move quickly and travel at the last minute.

Cruise West

Cruise West has also made some serious adjustments in its Alaska inventory this year, reducing its fleet of ships trading there from eight to five, or by three, because of poor bookings. One of these ships, the 96-berth Spirit of '98, is being moved to the Columbia and Snake River summer market in the wake of the of the demise of Majestic America Line. The other two, the 102-berth Spirit of Glacier Bay (once Clipper's Nantucket Clipper) and the 78-berth Spirit of Alaska, will remain in lay-up this summer.

All in all, this is more than a one-third cut in Alaska capacity by Cruise West. Not only is demand down for Alaska, but the state-imposed $50 head tax on all cruisers first levied in 2006 is now beginning to bite. Even Royal Caribbean is withdrawing one of its three Alaska ships, the Serenade of the Seas, in 2010, as it begins to feel the effect of the head tax plus emission controls that are tougher on cruise lines than the state's own residents.

Cruise West is meanwhile offering a "Stowaway" reduction of 25% to passengers who are flexible enough to put down a $700 deposit and choose a 30-day window on any Cruise West itinerary. A kind of standby program, the passenger is offered a date at least 30 days out and if they decline the deposit can be used against another departure. The deposit is refunded if Cruise West cannot accommodate the passenger at all.

Meanwhile, results are awaited on Cruise West's new offerings in the Galapagos and the Danube River, which added to its South Pacific and Japan itineraries with the 120-berth Spirit of Oceanus, sees Cruise West expanding beyond its traditional Alaska base.


Hurtigruten has also joined the discount fray, something that has not been so prevalent in the expedition and adventure trade in past years. Hurtigruten USA is offering a 25% reduction on suites, as well as free flights for those booking them on Antarctic departures in its 382-berth ms Fram. Hurtigruten has already cut back its Antarctic operation to one ship from two after having operated two ships last year and suffered a number of incidents.

Back in its home ground on the Norwegian coast, Hurtigruten announced on Friday that single travellers will not have to pay a single supplement on certain grades of accommodation between April and November this year on the full round voyage or on the northbound or southbound voyages. On other departures, it is offering free flights from the UK.

GAP Adventures and Cruise North

GAP's new ship, the 120-berth Expedition, now being converted from a Scandinavian ferry, will commence operations in the Azores this April and will then go on charter to Spitsbergen Travel for the summer. After having lost the Explorer in November 2007, the Expedition, as her replacement, was to have been ready for the 2008/09 Antarctic season, so this will now mean two seasons for GAP without their own ship in the Antarctic.

Meanwhile, compatriot Cruise North Expeditions, also of Toronto, is offering a two-for-one special on its Lyubov Orlova cruises in the Canadian Arctic this summer for all new bookings to the Northwest Passage, Hudson Bay and the High Arctic made before the end of February. The two departures to Baffin Island however are already sold out.

Oceanwide and Antarpply

As with GAP, Oceanwide's latest ship, the 112-berth Plancius, has also been delayed. Initially due to have entered service in June 2009 in Spitsbergen waters, she will now not be ready until the 2009/10 Antarctic season in November. In the meantime Oceanwide is offering reductions of up to 30% on some February and March 2009 Antarctic departures and 25% on certain 2009/10 departures by the 49-berth Professor Molchanov, including some 12- to 21-night itineraries that are not set to depart until much later this year. One of these, the 21-night departure, was a full charter that was cancelled.

One operator that was able to take advantage of the present softness in the Antarctic market was Antarpply Expeditions of Ushuaia, whose 84-berth Ushuaia ran aground in early December. While out of commission for repairs for several weeks, her operators were able to find substitute space on other ships to protect their clients' holidays. In an ordinary season, this would have been difficult, if nor impossible, as most ships would have been sold out.


After evidently poor bookings for its 120-berth Prince Albert II in Polynesia, Silversea Expeditions announced some time ago that it move her spring departures north to Spitsbergen. There are enough relatively small ships cruising out of Tahiti already and, as one wag asked at the time, "why would anyone want to cruise around Tahiti in a ship without a swimming pool?"

Elsewhere in the South Pacific, as Orion Expeditions continues to search for a second ship (which will probably also be delayed), it is offering 50% off the second passenger on certain March and April 2009 Papua New Guinea departures in its 104-berth Orion.

In summary, it seems that destinations such as Alaska, the Antarctic and the High Arctic are often considered as "once in a lifetime" trips and many people are just saying "not this year." All in all, however, if you have ever hankered after doing a small ship cruise or going to the Antarctic, now is the time to take advantage of some tremendous bargains.

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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