Cruises are restarting in the oddest of places, including (today) the Arctic Circle

Jul 16, 2020

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If you asked us a few months ago where we thought cruising would come back first, we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t have said the Arctic Circle.

But starting today, that’s exactly where some of the first cruises since the start of the coronavirus-caused cruising shutdown will take place.

Norwegian cruise expedition company Hurtigruten today is resuming trips to the Arctic’s wildlife-filled Svalbard archipelago with two ships: the 335-passenger Spitsbergen and the 530-passenger Roald Amundsen. Both vessels will operate at a sharply reduced capacity of 120 and 250 passengers, respectively, to ensure social distancing.

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Spitsbergen will operate four- to five-day Svalbard sailings out of Longyearbyen, a small town in the archipelago. Roald Amundsen will operate seven- to 15-day expedition cruises to the archipelago from Tromso, Norway.

The Spitsbergen trips will begin today for passengers with flights to Longyearbyen and an overnight in a local hotel. The ship will depart from Longyearbyen on Friday.

The Roald Amundsen trips will begin on Friday.

Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles 

Hurtigruten's Roald Amudsen is an expedition cruise ship with a strengthened hull capable of driving into ice in the Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten)
Named after a famous Arctic explorer, Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen is a tough-built expedition cruise ship with a strengthened hull capable of driving into ice in the Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten)

“We a thrilled to mark the restart of Arctic cruises,” Hurtigruten spokesperson Rune Thomas Ege told TPG. “Svalbard is the spectacular and remote corner of our own front yard, and we can’t wait to take our guests back exploring one of our favorite parts of the planet.”

Both Spitsbergen and Roald Amundsen have been custom-built to operate in polar regions. Spitsbergen is named after an island in the Svalbard archipelago. Roald Amundsen is named after the famous polar explorer.

All of the Svalbard trips will include Zodiac landings for wildlife sightseeing as well as kayaking and other expedition-related activities.

The trips are starting up just three weeks after Hurtigruten began cruises to Norway out of Hamburg, Germany — the first ocean cruises offered by any line since the cruising shutdown began.

Related: Hit hard by the pandemic, this storied cruise line will lose 29% of its ships

The cruises out of Hamburg were notable in that they didn’t include a single port stop — a novel approach to resuming voyages in an era when many ports are restricting cruise ship visits. The voyages, on the company’s new, 530-passenger Fridtjof Nansen, offered passengers the opportunity to see Norway‘s famous coastal fjords, glaciers and mountains as the ship traveled all the way up the coast to North Cape — one of the northernmost points in Europe.

Designed as an expedition ship, Fridtjof Nansen carries small Zodiac boats for exploring as well as kayaks and paddleboards. A Hurtigruten spokesperson told TPG they all have been put to use for adventures during the sailings.

While the new Svalbard sailings are Hurtigruten’s first Arctic-focused trips since the cruising shutdown began, the Fridtjof Nansen trips along the Norway coast also have included some time above the Arctic Circle.

Ege suggested that passengers on the new Svalbard sailings were in for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” given how devoid of tourists the destination will be this summer.

“The Arctic is always remote,” he noted. “But for the first time in 125 years, we will more or less have the entire area all by ourselves – only sharing the vast beauty of the Arctic with polar bears and other wildlife.”

Hurtigruten pioneered cruises to Svalbard in 1896.

Cruises to Svalbard and other parts of the Arctic are somewhat simpler to run in an era of coronavirus as they don’t involve much passenger interaction with other humans. The typical Arctic voyage is an expedition-style sailing that involves landings and Zodiac excursions to see wildlife, glaciers and floating ice formations.

Related: Cruise lines struggle to make a comeback in North America

Hurtigruten has been at the forefront of a growing movement among cruise companies to bring back cruising in Europe, which — unlike the United States — has seen coronavirus case counts plunge to low levels in recent months. Germany this week has been recording fewer than 400 new cases a day. The United States, by contrast, has been recording more than 60,000 new cases a day.

In addition to Hurtigruten, several other small lines — mostly river cruise lines — have restarted operations in Europe in the past few weeks.

All have instituted new health and safety measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus on ships. The measures vary from line to line but often include health screenings for passengers before boarding, onboard temperature checks and requirements for mask wearing and social distancing. Some lines also have closed the pools, spas and fitness areas on their ships.

For now, the cruises that are resuming in Europe only are open to Europeans. Due to the high coronavirus case counts in the United States, Europe has banned the arrival of American tourists.

The new Hurtigruten trips to Svalbard initially only were marketed to Norwegians, but Hurtigruten is now allowing travelers from a wide range of European countries to book the sailings.

Related: Is cruising done until 2021? This cruise line thinks so 

Known for its expedition cruises in polar regions such as Antarctica and a regular coastal cruise-and-ferry service along the Norwegian coast, Hurtigruten often draws American cruisers as well as large numbers of Germans and Norwegians.

In recent weeks, Hurtigruten also has restarted its Norwegian coastal service, which often draws traditional cruisers as well as locals traveling between Norwegian towns.

The company’s new Svalbard trips start around $2,100 per person for seven nights.

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Feature image courtesy of Hurtigruten

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