Cruise Lines Are Turning to Smaller Ships to Attract Eco-Minded Travelers

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It’s no secret that the pandemic rocked the cruise industry—as well as the travel industry overall—to its core. But a year with virtually no trips helped people think more carefully about why and how they travel. As vaccinated travelers dream about their triumphant return, they’re bringing a new level of consideration to their plans. No doubt, they’re turning to the romance of epic voyages—as competitive bookings for 2022 and beyond show—but as they do it, they want to explore more consciously. As a result, small-ship cruise lines are taking center stage for their mission-driven approach to slow travel.

To begin, the desire for longer and more immersive journeys aboard small cruise ships with fewer passengers has never been stronger. “Expedition and niche alternatives started on the drawing board about eight to 10 years ago, but we’re seeing the fruition now—which is coinciding with a time when people with the financial capacity will be more likely to take a small-ship cruise over a mega one,” says Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a cruise-industry expert.

Look at AmaWaterways, which recently launched the world’s longest riverboat cruise in history—the 46-night “Seven River Journey Through Europe” (from $25,000 per person)—departing June 2023. According to AmaWaterways’ executive vice president and co-founder Kristin Karst, staterooms were selling so quickly that the company launched a spring edition, which boasts the added luxury of sailing on the pioneering AmaMagna, a diesel-electronic hybrid ship with more spacious rooms but a smaller ecological footprint. Starting in France’s Provence region, some 150 guests will float through the Netherlands, Belgium, and 11 other countries along the Rhine, Moselle, and Danube rivers while stopping to visit family-run vineyards, join in-home cooking classes, and hike and bike through lesser-known villages. 

Off-beat experiences for more age groups

Despite the cliches, it’s not just retirees hopping aboard cruise ships these days. Younger demographics had become more interested in river cruising even before the pandemic, says Ellen Bettridge, CEO and President of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (cruises from $3,079 per person) and U by Uniworld. This summer, the company will launch its “Make Travel Matter” experiences to satisfy a growing interest in responsible travel. Whether it be taking a brass ornament-making workshop with artisans in India, learning about fair trade chocolate on a Belgian cacao farm, or going plastic-fishing in Amsterdam’s canals with a company that turns waste into furniture, river cruising is no longer just about sipping craft gin on the sundeck—though that’s an option, too.

On Atlas Ocean Voyage’s World Navigator (prices from $5,799 per person), a superyacht-like vessel launching in July, a whole day can be spent at the ship’s own 947-square-foot L’Occitane spa. But the brand’s ethos is geared toward leveraging lesser-known ports and unique experiences that can only be accessed via its compact, luxe-yet-sustainable fleet. The Mediterranean and Black Sea itineraries include unconventional stops like Pripyat, a ghost town near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; a 12-night Patagonia expedition through the Straits of Magellan sails through the English Narrows and stops at Castro, Chile, and Punta Arenas. The ship resembles a floating boutique hotel but features eco-minded tech, including a hydro-jet propulsion system that reduces underwater noise pollution.

Destinations demand greener ships

Part of the allure of smaller vessels is that they can access ports that are off-limits to 6,000-passenger ships—especially now that some destinations like Venice’s historic center have banned large cruise ships entirely.

In a landmark move, Norway announced it will only allow zero-emission vessels to enter its World Heritage fjords from 2026 onward. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology has already started working on a “green quay” project in Geirangerfjord, where passengers will likely switch to smaller, emission-free vessels in order to see the region’s majestic snow-capped mountains and flowing waterfalls.

“More destinations are developing their own sustainable cruise charters and directives,” says Wassim Daoud, Head of Sustainability at Ponant, a small-ship cruise line with environmentally minded maritime origins. “Often, they require the use of the low-sulfur fuels; for example, Marseille or Dubrovnik.” Ponant recently unveiled its latest expedition ship, Le Commandant-Charcot (prices from $13,970, based on double occupancy), the first first hybrid-electric, LNG-fueled vessel to sail the poles. This fall, a new 15-day itinerary will transport nature lovers to Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, the only area in the world where the total solar eclipse on December 4 will be completely visible. With two onboard laboratories, the ship will provide an opportunity for scientific researchers to explore and share their insights with guests, Daoud says.

A favorable guide-to-guest ratio on small cruise ships is especially useful when learning about sea lions, penguins, and the elusive blue-footed booby birds in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands. This is part of the ethos of expedition company Ecoventura (inquire for price) , which distinguishes itself both for its design-forward 20-passenger luxury yachts and knowledgeable naturalist guides (one for every 10 guests). In 2022, the company will welcome a brand new vessel, aptly named Evolve, into its Relais & Chateaux fleet, which will reduce fossil fuel consumption by more than 30 percent and feature an advanced water treatment plan that prevents untreated greywater and blackwater from being disposed of into the ocean.

“Our focus is also on helping the island recover from the global pause in tourism,” says Ecoventura CEO Santiago Dunn. “In the first two months of the pandemic alone, the islands’ economy lost almost a quarter of its annual income.” To help, Ecoventura has partnered with local non-profit organizations that disseminate micro-loans and grants for education, food security, and conservation initiatives, plus support local guides—many of whom saw their incomes dry up when restrictions were put in place, Dunn says.

As Ecuador and other tourism-dependent destinations around the world open their borders, travelers have even more reason to set sail and choose their vessel wisely. With small changes that make a big impact, cruising is getting a second wind.

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