Even before COVID-19, sailing to Antarctica is not a journey to be undertaken lightly.
Many expedition operators require participants to complete medical forms attesting to the mental and physical fitness of participants and obtain insurance with extensive air evacuation coverage. That' s because once a ship makes a multi-day trek across the Drake, medical assistance for advanced issues can simply be out of reach.
And that has jeopardized -- or outright killed -- the 2020-2021 Antarctica season for most operators.
The Antarctic cruise season typically begins in November and continues until late February or early March, during the Southern Hemisphere's summertime. With the start of the season just one month away, numerous lines have already cancelled or postponed their Antarctica voyages for the coming months.
As of this writing, most operators that routinely offer expedition cruises to Antarctica, including Hurtigruten, Quark Expeditions, Seabourn, and Silversea, have all cancelled their 2020-2021 Antarctica sailings. Scenic has removed all Antarctica voyages departing in January, February and March 2021 from its website, though voyages are technically only cancelled through December 31 of this year.
Other operators have only cancelled part of the season. Boutique polar expedition company Oceanwide Expeditions still has a handful of departures in March 2021 to Antarctica available for booking; and Heritage Expeditions wrote in a blog post on October 16 that its nimble Spirit of Enderby was repositioning from Vladivostok, Russia to Lyttleton, New Zealand in preparation for that vessel's season of expeditions to the Ross Sea.
For those who hold reservations on Antarctic cruises still scheduled to go ahead in late 2020 or early 2021, it is best to keep in contact with your cruise line and airlines. Air lift, or the lack thereof, continues to be a major issue for cruise operators around the world. And most governments are understandably not thrilled about the idea of charter aircraft carrying leisure travellers through major airports to reach the ships.
However, Antarctic tourism brings in a significant amount of income for smaller towns like Ushuaia and airline operators that rely on lucrative charter business transporting passengers down from places like Buenos Aires and Santiago.
So while this upcoming season will likely not go ahead for most operators, it is entirely possible that some could still go ahead as planned, with COVID health and safety restrictions in place.
For those who still want to visit The Last Continent, there is good news: the future looks brighter for sailings departing in Fall 2021 and beyond. Some lines, like Quark Expeditions, have already announced their 2022 Antarctica sailing program, allowing cruisers to book adventures departing further down the road.
The 2021-2022 season will also see several new entrants into the Antarctic cruise arena.
Polar newcomer Atlas Ocean Voyages will sail its first Antarctic season beginning in November 2021, including a rare Antarctica Solar Eclipse voyage on November 28, 2021.
In late 2022, Viking Expeditions will debut its first-ever Antarctic voyages, sailing aboard a fleet of purpose-built expedition ships that combine the comforts of Viking's larger oceangoing fleet and its iconic European riverboats.
There are also some surprising entrants into Antarctica: in January and February 2022, Norwegian Cruise Line will send its Norwegian Star on 14-day cruises to Antarctica sailing from Buenos Aires. Because of its size, Norwegian Star will be limited to cruising-only, with no shore landings. But its deployment is another sign of Antarctica's enduring popularity.
Additionally, the chances of having better air support next season are far better than right now, when international air travel and other restrictions make it difficult, if not impossible, to travel to remote embarkation ports like Ushuaia.
Second, chances are good that by next winter, more will be known about COVID-19. Cruises will have been in operation for several months by the time next November rolls around, and the travel industry as a whole will have a better idea of how to handle the virus, whether or not a vaccine is present at that time.
All operators sailing to Antarctica have their late 2021-early 2022 itineraries available for booking.
Antarctica is a one-of-a-kind journey; the sort of place that can only be fully understood once you've set foot there. It is no stretch to imagine that exotic, bucket-list voyages like these will be among the first to sell out when cruising resumes.