We recently caught up with Ben Lyons, CEO at EYOS Expeditions and Expedition Voyage Consultants. From penguins and ice to navigating unchartered territory, see below for why Polar Sailing needs to be on your bucket list.
You just returned from Antarctica. What season is this for you? Highlights for this year?
I first came to Antarctica in 2007 and have returned every year since. I have to say – it doesn’t get old. In some ways, the more I return, the more I know the Antarctic Peninsula and the more I appreciate it. You begin to see nuances and the more experience you have, the more insight you gain. I’m still absolutely captivated by it and look forward to heading south every year.
This year was really an exceptional season. While everyone thinks penguins are the main attraction, to me, the ice and the whales are what I find so compelling. We had amazing encounters with whales this year – both humpbacks and killer whales – that left guests speechless.
Mostly, however, a few days in the ice is what truly stands out. We spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day surrounded by 8/10th first year sea ice (a concentration level of the ice) and further south than any vessel had gone on the inside route that season. It was magic. I think part of the appeal is that there are still new things to discover – this year, we circumnavigated Vega Island, pushing through several miles of ice to do so. It was my first time ever completing that passage. You never know what each season will bring.
What is it that makes Polar Sailing so popular right now?
I think there are many reasons. Overall, there is definitely more desire for experiences. There is an understanding of the significance and value in an experience over a simple material purchase. These are truly, for most people, once in a lifetime experiences, and guests are going outside their normal day-to-day lives to seek them out. How many people see polar bears or penguins every day?! Polar travel is invigorating and rewarding. Additionally, families are discovering it is a great destination for them to tackle. There is the convenience of shipboard travel, plus absolutely amazing entertainment onshore for children. I suspect most children would pick hanging out with penguins over another visit to a cathedral. And lastly, the market itself is changing – ships are getting better and more comfortable. People who were not interested in traveling on former research vessels are suddenly interested in expedition travel.
What emerging expedition regions do you have on your radar screen?
We see Papua New Guinea (PNG) only continuing to grow in popularity. There is so much to do there – from history and culture to diving. The market potential is very large. For many operators, it isn’t a new destination – they’ve been going for years – but we think there will start to be more awareness from the public now about PNG.
Sustainability is a theme for Seatrade Cruise Global 2019, what are expedition cruise lines doing to promote sustainability?
All travel to the polar regions promotes an awareness of the environment and our impact on it – you can’t visit and not be confronted with it, face-to-face. All expedition cruise lines do a great job of informing guests and raising appreciation for the region they are traveling in. This, in turn, creates ambassadors for the polar region – thousands of people who suddenly feel connected to, and hopefully committed to, preserving and protecting them. In a lot of ways, I think that is the most powerful thing cruise lines can do.
Beyond that, there has been a rush to eliminate single-use plastics this past year, which is certainly worth applauding. There is also a serious interest in new forms of propulsion and hybrid technology that were not there only five years ago. Of course, all cruise lines are also complying with the Polar Code (international code that sets regulations on ships operating in the polar regions) and also using clean burning fuel now, which further minimizes the environmental footprint.
What recommendations do you have for the industry relating to sustainability? Who is doing things well?
I have to applaud Hurtigruten and the efforts that Daniel Skjeldam (CEO) has pushed forward. They were out front with trying hybrid propulsion – and even if the battery power is limited for the time being, it is the first step towards testing and improving the technology. They followed up later with the elimination of single use plastic, and I am sure there are more initiatives on their front to come. My recommendation is to simply look critically at all your operations onboard to see where changes can be made. Regulations can sometimes be slow to work their way through the process, and often we as an industry lead the way with just a bit of initiative.
Anything else you wish to share?
The next two to three years will be fascinating within the expedition space with all of the newly built ships being delivered. There will inevitably be challenges, and hopefully the entire industry works together to confront them for the benefit of all guests and the environment as we deal with a new business landscape.