While many cruise lines have had to pause operations and postpone itineraries around New Zealand, a home-grown expedition cruise company more than doubled passenger capacity with new ships added to their fleet.
From next year the polar exploration ship MS Hanseatic will join Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions. Renamed the Heritage Adventurer, she will carry passengers on itineraries of Antarctica, New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands, and the Russian East.
Although modestly sized, this new addition more than doubles the current capacity for tourists visiting New Zealand's Antarctic dependency.
Built in 1991 in Finland the 140-passenger ship is built for Polar exploration. The 1A Super ice class vessel carries three times the number of passengers of Heritage's current Polar-equipped expedition fleet, Akademik Shokalskiy and Spirit of Enderby.
"It was built as a passenger vessel from the start, which alters the design," said Aaron Russ.
Compared to the fleet of converted research vessels "It represents quite an upgrade."
Carrying a fleet of 14 Zodiacs the Adventurer will offer excursions to bring guests out into rarely seen parts of the South Sea and Subantarctic.
The Adventurer's first sailing will be in May next year around the East Siberian Sea before arriving in New Zealand for November and its first Antarctic summer with Heritage.
Big increase in Antarctic tourism
As the third and largest ice-rated ship to be seasonally based out of New Zealand, the Adventurer increases the capacity for Antarctic tourism.
Historically visits to the Ross Sea has made up less than one per cent of Antarctic Tourism. The vast majority of tourists leave from South America, sending around 56000 cruise passengers in a summer.
The short, 36-hour sailing to the Antarctic Peninsula made it the obvious stepping off point.
However, post-pandemic there is a growing interest in the Ross Sea from international tourism.
Next year Heritage will be joined by four other cruise liners, including Ponant, Oceanwide and Aurora expeditions.
"That's a significant increase in visitations to the regions," says Russ, who sees a couple of factors driving demand for sailings south of New Zealand.
"With the current travel restrictions, the opportunity to deploy a ship from Hobart of New Zealand is a lot closer to the source market. It's a lot closer to a source marker than Ushuaia and South America."
While there are more cruise lines than ever selling tickets to the South Sea below New Zealand, Heritage says this increase needs to be carefully managed.
"As a long-established participant in the Ross Sea, I'd like to see the opportunity to work alongside the New Zealand Government to make sure it's done in a sustainable and responsible way," says Russ.
MFAT which has been monitoring the rise of Antarctic tourism, says growth fits in to a wider trend which has seen visitations increase 25 fold in the past 40 years.
"As a party to the Antarctic Treaty System, New Zealand is required to minimise the environmental impact of travellers to the region," said a ministry spokesperson.
New Zealand's current policy is to "avoid promotion" or "expansion" of Antarctic tourism and limit the extent of government support to tourist and other non-governmental expeditions to the continent.
However, the appetite for leisure travel to the continent continues to grow.
Heritage's other new ship is the more modestly-sized, 18-guest expedition yacht Heritage Explorer which is already running itineraries for Kiwi guests around Marlborough and Stewart Island.
International ships are currently barred from entering New Zealand waters until 30 June at the earliest, in spite of travel agreements with Australia and the Cook Islands.
As the New Zealand Cruise Association continues discussions with the government, chief executive Kevin O'Sullivan said it would be a while before passengers from other countries would set sail around New Zealand.
"We are capable now of operating New Zealand cruises and then New Zealand and Australian cruises quite comfortably and safely," he said.
"It is frustrating because as time goes on it is less and less likely we will see cruises this season because it takes time to get crews and ships ready."