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Expedition cruising - Overpriced or excellent value?

All too often, we hear people agonise over their future travel plans. 'The trouble is', they cry, 'we've been everywhere'. Expeditions and adventures are the perfect choice for those who have 'done' the standard cruise itineraries. The opportunity to travel further afield, away from the tourist areas, and into truly remote, unexplored or wilderness areas, is offered to a select few on board small ships, specifically adapted for this kind of travel. At first sight, such journeys can appear expensive – so we spoke to Sarina Bratton, Managing Director of Orion Expedition Cruises, about the invisible costs of operating an expedition programme.

Expedition ships are small ships, with a high crew/passenger ratio. Furthermore, the crew have to be exceptionally well trained, and prepared to work in very demanding conditions – there is little opportunity for them to go ashore, or enjoy 'down time'. They need to be more specialised, more responsible, and well remunerated, way above the industry average. These expenses, as well as other fixed costs, are of course spread between a very limited number of passengers.

Expedition operators incur far higher fuel costs than other cruise operators. Orion, for example, burns marine gas oil (MGO) in all areas except Antarctica, where they need to burn the even higher grade Antarctic fuel - the most expensive in the world. The cost of marine gas oil is almost three times that of heavy fuel oil (HFO) which is burned by the majority of the world's cruising fleet.

Shoreside experiences are provided at no additional cost, often in remote areas with no existing infrastructure or economies of scale. When operating in remote areas, the operator needs to engage the zodiacs, incur the cost of fuel, oversee the operation of safely embarking guests into the zodiacs, ensure there are sufficient skilled crew to drive zodiacs and simultaneously keep the guests informed about what they are seeing, pay expenses to villagers for access to their land, agree on ancillary benefits to the community and so forth.

The ship then needs to take all necessary equipment and provisions ashore to ensure the passengers are looked after, because nothing can be provided locally (bottled water, sun-screen, towels etc, not to mention medical assistance).

It will come as no surprise to learn that the insurance for a ship that ventures into inadequately surveyed or unsurveyed areas is substantially higher than for ships operating conventional cruise itineraries.

The majority of ships are built for shorter 7 to 10 day cruises. An expedition vessel may be out of touch with 'civilisation' for up to three weeks. This means that a large amount of space is dedicated to technical consumables. Likewise conventional cruise ships are able to source provisions in the location of their choice, and bring them in by container. When you are operating away from key ports, provisioning is much more expensive, and presents additional logistical challenges which also add to the expense.

If you are operating off the beaten track, itineraries cannot be planned from an office with a guide showing sailing times from one port to another. Someone has to physically go to the area and research each itinerary in depth, developing partnerships and a support network in areas where no such thing already exists.

Then on each expedition the ship carries a number of highly trained and knowledgeable experts (naturalists and tour leaders), most of them the very best in their field, all of whom need to be paid and accommodated.

Finally, Orion Expeditions in particular has a strong ethos of responsibility, giving back to the people and location it visits in the form of financial support, joint activity and ethical trading.

In short, all things considered, our question should not be 'Why is Expedition Cruising so expensive' but 'how on earth do they do it for the money they charge'.

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