Greater choice is making the decision making process more complex, says Swoop Antarctica commercial director Alex Mudd

One of the coldest places on earth is hot property right now. 10 years ago, Antarctica was more the preserve of ‘pioneers’ who were willing to accept basic ship cabins and canteen food to experience the 7th Continent and go where relatively few had gone before.

Now, a combination of the growing trend of experiential travel, powerful imagery of icebergs and penguins on social media and a new generation of more comfortable small ships have all helped to bring Antarctica into the mainstream travel consciousness and power the rapid growth in visitor numbers.

According to industry body IAATO, in 2014, around 38,000 people visited Antarctica. In 2018, that number had shot up some 40% to 51,000.

It’s no wonder operators have been moving in to meet this demand. Yet some are as fragile as the environment they are working within. In the last few days, one operator One Ocean Expeditions abruptly cancelled its 6th November departure due to “restructuring issues” leaving nearly 150 passengers on its ship, RCGS Resolute, including some of our own customers, unable to sail.

So agents and their customers need to be asking deeper questions about the operators they are working with, questioning their financial stability, service quality, ice class ratings and staff morale.

With demand increasingly starting to outstrip supply, particularly with only a short five-month visitor window between November and March, there have been some significant changes in the last two years which are set to change the industry profoundly.

A whole new fleet of state-of-the-art expedition ships, from $50m each, are emerging with the first few now beginning their inaugural Antarctic seasons. This new generation of carbon-friendlier ships with plusher cabins (with balconies), onboard amenities and fine dining are being well-received and opening up the Antarctic to a new type of traveller.

Experienced traditional river cruise companies like Scenic, Viking & Mystic Cruises are entering the Polar market with their own ships, which will undoubtedly threaten the existing business model, increase competition and put pressure on smaller operators.

The high cost of Antarctic cruising has attracted new agents in recent years who see the benefits of selling to a higher net worth customer, often easily paying $20,000 for a voyage. Some newer agents need to be digging deeper and researching operators more before selling with such confidence. At Swoop Antarctica we recently stopped selling One Ocean Expeditions’ cruises due to their current, precarious financial position.

So this increase in choice in the region is not making the decision making process any easier for consumers which is why it is more important than ever to be working with an experienced and knowledgeable agent.

If choosing the right trip to Antarctica was hard five years ago, with the increasing complexity (new ships, should I fly or sail to the region, what is the right size of ship to choose etc) it’s now got a whole lot harder. You need an experienced adviser to understand your needs and then to guide you to exactly the right trip for you. With most agents being generalists rather than Polar specialists, few are knowledgeable enough to be able to do this.

No two ships are the same, even if they appear to be on the outside. So it’s vital that consumers choose agents who know each ship, their expedition leaders and the operator intimately, if they are not to fall victim and find their much anticipated cruise is no more.