Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is Expedition Cruising the Purest Ecotourism?

Out in the wide world of commercial travel, cruising is enjoying a revival. Buoyed by the new wave of gigantic, luxurious vessels carrying up to 5000 passengers for as little a two hundred dollars per day, the allure is understandable.

In Australia, cruise passenger numbers have tripled in less than ten years. In 2009, around 350,000 travelled on a cruise ship. In 2002, it was 116,308. All sectors and geographic areas are enjoying growth including river cruising, adventure cruising and boutique products.

“It’s a thrill to see Papua New Guinea really hitting its straps as a cruise destination now,” says Tony Briggs of Coral Princess Cruises, “and our projections for New Zealand are also exciting thanks to some new strategic marketing.”

Overseas in the US and Europe, things were certainly gloomier and the big lines, replete with sparkling new vessels and empty cabins, discounted like never before to counter the GFC blues. Our own operators also felt the loss of inbound passengers, but that hasn’t stopped the likes of Orion Expeditions from doubling their fleet and itineraries.

But is all this exciting expansion good for tourism in emerging and fragile destinations? Many of us recall the experience of going ashore from a big ship in Fiji in the 1980s and ‘90s. Merchants, touts and traders out in force, extracting every penny from the tourists. Beads, shells and the dreaded carved wooden knives now decorate mantelpieces from Bondi to Birdsville.

Since the early ‘90s, adventure and expedition cruising has been on a steady upward curve. Small ships, ice class vessels, river steamers and boutique cruisers have carried inquisitive soft adventurers to remote tropical islands and chilly polar regions in search of enrichment and excitement. Small numbers, little or no infrastructure and strict environmental protocols mean an experience in contrast to those aboard their bigger brethren.

Recent attention to climate change and environmental degradation has accelerated a certain urgency among thinking travellers to see our rapidly changing planet. Some scientists predict our children will see a complete disappearance of the polar ice cap in their lifetime.

Expedition and adventure cruising in low impact vessels, carrying small passenger numbers (often 100 or less) to destinations with little or no tourism infrastructure is quite possibly one of the purest forms of ecotourism.

While icebergs and penguin colonies often come to mind when thinking of expedition cruising, destinations much closer to home can yield the same ‘other world’ experience. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Indonesia and our own remote Kimberley coast and Great Barrier Reef transport travellers to a world much like that encountered by 18th and 19th century explorers.

The increased demand for adventure cruise itineraries can be viewed as a positive indicator among the travelling public. A growing awareness of our fragile planet and its disappearing cultures and wildlife urges more and more conscientious tourists to venture out in search of the “experiential and transformational” promised by adventure marketers.

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