Antarctica cruise season is almost here, but will it still happen amid COVID-19 pandemic?
The polar vortex is making parts of the continental U.S. even colder than Antarctica. Here are 4 survival tips from someone who actually lives there. USA TODAY
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 serious health problems can simply be out of reach. And that has jeopardized – or outright killed – the 2020-2021 Antarctica season for most operators.
What's in store for the upcoming 2020-2021 season?
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 canceled 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 canceled 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 canceled only through Dec. 31.
Other operators have canceled only 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 Oct. 16 that its nimble Spirit of Enderby was repositioning from Vladivostok, Russia, to Lyttleton, New Zealand, to prepare for that vessel's season of expeditions to the Ross Sea.
For those who hold reservations on Antarctic cruises still scheduled for late 2020 or early 2021, it is best to keep in contact with your cruise line and airlines. Air travel, or the lack thereof, continues to be a major problem for cruise operators around the world. And most governments are understandably not thrilled about the idea of charter aircraft carrying leisure travelers through major airports to reach the ships.
But 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 probably will not go ahead for most operators, it is entirely possible some could still go ahead as planned, with COVID-19 health and safety restrictions in place.
A brighter outlook: 2021-2022 and beyond
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, already have 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 Nov. 28, 2021.
In late 2022, Viking Expeditions will launch 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, Argentina. 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 air support next season are far better than now, when international air travel and other restrictions make it difficult, if not impossible, to travel to remote embarkation ports like Ushuaia, Argentina.
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 coronavirus, with or without a vaccine available.
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 be fully understood only 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.
More from Cruise Critic:
- Antarctica cruises:Why do most of them depart from South America?
- They don't have to cost a fortune: Tips for sailing to Antarctica on the cheap
- What to expect: Get a taste of Antarctica with this virtual voyage