Nikolai Saveliev: We call our tourists co-sailors
Nikolai, what is the profile of an Arctic tourist?
I'll start by saying that we do not use the word "tourist" when referring to our clients. They are travelers or, to use a term we recently invented, "co-sailors." This has nothing to do with anything extreme. Extreme adventures are when you reach the North Pole or cross Greenland on skis, whereas on our cruises we provide a warm and comfortable environment. That said, we create an expedition spirit and an atmosphere of adventure, but without anything extreme. We even have a slogan to this effect: "Cruise expeditions in a comfortable atmosphere."
It took us a while to understand the profile of the travelers we serve. It turned out to be harder than we initially thought, since there are all kinds of people. Comparing Russians and foreigners, our fellow Russians are generally younger. Foreigners find it surprising that Russians can afford distant voyages at a young age. By young people I mean under 40, active people eager to learn new things and well-educated. Some are looking to add new destinations to their travel CVs, while others want, for instance, to reach both poles. Lately there have been many middle-age couples who, having finished building their homes and bringing up their kids, and now have the time to travel. They want to be like those from the adventure books they once read. They couldn't have afforded it back then, but now they can.
There are also some interesting and very touching cases sometimes. We had an older gentleman come to us recently. He was dressed modestly, but had the entire cost of the expedition, which is quite substantial, in a plastic bag. He told us he had been saving for a North Pole trip all his life.
How many people travel to the Arctic every year? Are the numbers increasing or decreasing? Are there more foreigners or Russians?
We're talking 40,000 people per year for sea travel only. For tourism in general, up to 100,000 people visit Spitzbergen every year. The Arctic is becoming an increasingly popular destination. That said, Russians account for just 1% of the tourists, while most of the demand comes from the US, the Chinese and Germans.
It is hard to compare the Russian and foreign cruise expedition markets. For a Russian, this is something new, something Russians have yet to become accustomed to. They've only had the opportunity to travel abroad recently and have yet to get enough of the Maldives or the Canarias, which makes the Arctic irrelevant. They think it's too cold up there, which is, by the way, not true, and our cruises are there to prove that it can be as warm as 15 degrees in the Arctic in the summer.
So foreigners are far ahead of Russians in terms of the numbers. They have an established culture of travelling, where people travel not just for rest and lying on the beach, but to learn something new, meet interesting people. Cruises like this always include discussions, lectures, always surrounded by National Geographic-like scenery.
We now have extended families, several generations of people, travelling with us. I remember a Japanese family: a grandmother aged 92, her 72-year old daughter, a 53-year old granddaughter and a grand-granddaughter, who was 28. This grandmother always took the inflatable boats, flew on helicopters and attended the lectures, and most important, was thinking about where to go next. That's what I call a family vacation.
What time of the year do the cruises take place?
For the Arctic, the cruise season begins in May and ends in September. The summer and the polar day in the Arctic are quite brief. This is the best time to discover its animal life and unique nature. Cruises vary in terms of duration, but most of them last 8 to 12 nights, which is just enough to see everything.
What routes do you take and where do the ships stop?
There are several routes. They can include the Russian Arctic: the Franz Josef Land archipelago, appearing in many Soviet-era Arctic exploration movies, Greenland, Iceland, and Spitzbergen. The trip to the North Pole is of course the most memorable and unique of all.
What do travelers do during the trip?
A cruise expedition is more than just recreation. It's like living the life of an adventurer, albeit for a short period of time. This is what's unique about a cruise expedition.
The main objective is to see the unique animal life and visit places that are out of reach for ordinary tourists, see things that you could only watch on TV before. For instance, we offer the possibility to visit the first-ever polar station or an indigenous village of Inuits. A polar bear with her cubs can come really close to the ship or be spotted among a hundred whales. Life onboard is also spectacular: lectures by geologists, marine biologists and historians are a wonderful opportunity to learn new things about the region. People find each other and find each other's company interesting. But our travelers are free to do what they want on the ship: some like to spend their evenings listening to live music in the bar, some play cards, while others sort through the photos they've taken. Our travelers are never bored and always have things to do, which is attributable not just to our efforts, but also to the mindset of our fellow travelers.
How safe is Arctic tourism?
Here's how I respond to this question: "You think that adventures are dangerous? Living a routine life is what can really kill you." Arctic tourism is no different from any other kind of tourism in terms of risk. There is no danger for the traveler. This is why I said in the beginning of the interview that we have nothing to do with anything extreme. A doctor is on board at all times. Generally, if you follow the simple rules and the advice of the crew, you'll be totally safe.
Tell us a little bit about the company. How did the idea of taking tourists to the Arctic and the Antarctic start? How do you set the prices for these cruises?
Our company has been around for 22 years. We started by chartering cargo vessels and transporting cargo by sea as a shipping company. In the mid-1990s, at a time of economic uncertainty for the country, when many ships weren't used, the Murmansk Maritime Shipping Company proposed that we organize cruises on icebreakers.
In fact, the first cruise expeditions date back to the 1960s, so there's nothing new about it, but for us, Russians, this was something new. I was inspired by Lars-Eric Lindblad who pioneered this kind of travel. He was regarded as one of the most creative people in these cruises. He had the idea of sending people on cruises to the most distant and challenging destinations, such as the Antarctic, the Arctic, Easter Island, the Galapagos Islands, etc. He was also behind the idea of ecotourism. I can't forget what he said when there were attempts to restrict tourism: "Travel in my opinion is not ordinary trade. Travel is a way of communicating. To restrict travel is like burning books or imprisoning journalists."
All this led us to organize cruise expeditions. Having grown up in the USSR, I saw a lot of movies on Arctic exploration. Every boy dreamt about getting there, and I was no exception. So when I first got there fulfilling my dreams, I wanted to share this feeling and tell everyone that it's not that complicated or as far away as it might seem. Today there are practically no borders, everything is nearby. Understanding what to strive for is all it takes.
Prices of our cruises start at 200 000 rubles, and go into the millions, as is the case, for example, of the North Pole cruise. Logistics arrangements are usually more complex than an onshore route, which leads to higher prices. Prices vary depending on the destination and the duration. Once you try it and like it, nothing will stop you. After that, you'll never want to have a regular beach vacation again.