Charting a New Course for Luxury Explorer Cruises

Repositioning an expedition cruise ship operation in a pandemic is all part of the adventure for the new CEO of Aurora Expeditions.

Article by Shaney Hudson

Kayaking in Cierva Cove, Antarctica. Photography by Emma Evans.

Despite the events of last year, cruising is still considered one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global travel industry, with the dark horse being the growth of luxury expedition cruising. While river cruises and themed cruises have taken a back seat over the past few years, luxury expedition cruising has attracted new clients and arguably higher yields.

In terms of destinations, travel to the polar regions had accelerated in popularity in the years prior to the pandemic; there were more than a dozen new ice-class expedition ships under construction and thousands of passengers booking cruises years in advance. As a result, cruise operators had started to question whether the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, where tourist vessels depart for Antarctica, could service the number of new ships, and there was also a concern about the number of visitors the Antarctic Peninsula could sustain.

Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photography by Matt Horspool.
Iceberg Monolith, Antarctica. Photography by Andrew Halsall.

A year on and many cancelled cruises later, several small ship expedition companies have pivoted their operation and repositioned their ships to Australia and New Zealand in order to boost their bottom line. They aim to resume operations to East Antarctica and Australian destinations including the rugged Kimberley Coast. It’s a strategic move by global companies such as Scenic, Ponant and Aurora Expeditions while they wait for the Australian Federal Government to approve guidelines for the safe resumption of cruising in Australia. At the time of print this is expected to be September.

The comparatively low Covid-19 infection rates in Australia and New Zealand, coupled with an attractive coastline, are an obvious drawcard for expedition companies. Additionally, Australians are known to like cruising and with borders currently closed, we’re a captive market. “The business decision to look at the Ross Sea [off the coast of Antarctica] was driven mainly by what’s happening in the world,” says Aurora Expeditions’ new CEO, Monique Ponfoort. “In a pretty bad time,” she says, “it’s a special thing to do.”

Snorkelling, Danco Island, Antarctica. Photography by David Hudson.

Ponfoort, who began with the company in October 2020, spent 17 years working at Qantas and was vice-president of Ponant Asia Pacific. She sees the current challenges as a great opportunity to bring an Australian company back home. This confidence, however, could be a result of the fact that Aurora has sailed the Ross Sea to Antarctica before, and it has the added benefit of senior expedition guides with knowledge of the area, advising on the new route. “When I ask our expedition leaders about the difference between East Antarctica and the Peninsula, they say it’s kind of like the difference between the Swiss Alps and the Australian outback,” she explains. “They are so different, but they’re both so grand and powerful.”

Paradise Harbour, Antarctica. Photography by Matt Horspool.

Previously, the Antarctic Peninsula was favoured by operators over the Ross Sea due to its proximity, favourable ice conditions and landing sites, but Ponfoort says the decision to head south was also driven by customers, many of whom have switched to a Ross Sea departure rather than delay their travel. “What we’re finding with a lot of our loyal guests is that they’re looking for this new Antarctic experience,” she says. “You’ve got the challenge of pushing through pack ice and sailing so far south, the blizzards and the wildness of nature together with the grandeur of the polar ice caps and the curiosity of the emperor penguin. East Antarctica is truly the next level.”