The Galápagos is one of the most pristine destinations on earth, home to rare animals and plants that you won’t find anywhere else. This archipelago of islands, located hundreds of miles off the coast of Ecuador, is mostly uninhabited and notoriously challenging to access—unless you’re on a ship.
In 1835, Charles Darwin famously sailed through these remote islands and rocked the world with his discoveries when he published the book, On the Origin of Species. In 1967, another intrepid traveler, Lars-Eric Lindblad, made history when he took some of the first non-scientific travelers on an expedition cruise through the Galápagos on the heels of a similarly epic trip the previous year to Antarctica.
“He basically opened up the world,” says his proud son, Sven Lindblad. “And he really was the pioneer of what we call ‘ecotourism’ today. Right out of the gate, he recognized the need and importance of cultural sensibility, care and concern for the environment.”
So it was no surprise that Sven followed in his father’s footsteps and founded Lindblad Expeditions, a trailblazing, eco-sensitive travel company that helped pioneer the concept of accessing remote, fragile destinations like the Galápagos and Antarctica on small expedition cruise ships.
Now, after weathering the pandemic—which crippled the cruise industry for nearly two years—Lindblad Expeditions is taking the expedition space to the next level by rolling out transformative small ships in partnership with National Geographic that are combining new kinds of exploration and education with unheard of levels of luxury, style and comfort.
This fall, Lindblad inaugurated its first-ever all-suite expedition ship in the Galápagos: National Geographic Islander II, a groundbreaking 280-foot vessel created for 21st century explorers. There are all kinds of luxuries—26 sprawling suites with huge marble bathrooms, sleek dining areas with floor-to-ceiling windows, a swimming pool, a sauna, a deck that’s strung with hammocks and a sea-level temperature-controlled marina designed for comfortably launching Zodiacs, kayaks and paddleboards.
The National Geographic Islander II also combines depth and gravitas. There’s a science lab where working scientists can conduct onboard research. The staff includes an expedition leader, an undersea specialist and a number of National Geographic-trained and -certified staffers, from a photo instructor to field guides.
Also at the core of this ship and this company’s mission: A respect for the local community and the environment. There are conservation cabins reserved for members of the community, including educators and storytellers. The boutique carries locally made products, and Galápagos artisans are regularly invited onboard to meet guests and showcase their sustainable designs. The locavore menus showcase regional recipes and organic ingredients bought from local farmers.
Last year, Lindblad Expeditions launched a pair of similarly cutting-edge ships in Antarctica: National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution. Purpose-built for polar navigation, these sister ships have state-of-the-art capabilities designed to safely, thoughtfully and luxuriously navigate the White Continent year-round.
For the christening of the National Geographic Islander II, Sven recently returned to the Galápagos for his 50th visit—or maybe more (he’s lost count). On the heels of the launch, we caught up with him to find out how he got started, the current state of travel and what’s on the horizon.
A Legacy: Lars-Eric Lindblad launched his travel company—Lindblad Travel—in 1958, but not for the reasons you’d think. “He wasn’t necessarily interested in the travel business,” says Sven. “He wanted to be an explorer. But in those days, you had to be wealthy or have a sponsor. He thought about becoming a missionary, but he wasn’t religious. In the beginning, he built his travel business so that he could go out and see the world and have that financed by his guests—and give them an interesting experience at the same time. He opened up places like Antarctica, the Galápagos, Bhutan, Easter Island, most of the Amazon, much of Africa, China. He was really something.”
My Own Journey: “I had no interest in getting into travel,” admits Sven. “After college, I went to Kenya and stayed there for seven years. I studied. I photographed elephants for a year and a half. I worked at a tented camp. I did some guiding to get some money. I worked for a filmmaker for a while. But one day, my father asked me if I would work for him. He was my hero, although I hardly knew him because he was always traveling. So I couldn’t say no. I came back to the United States, worked for him for a year and a half looking after our Africa activity and also wound up doing planning and marketing for a ship called the Lindblad Explorer. Not that I had any particular training, but I absorbed things very quickly.”
The Origins of a Company: After Lindblad Travel got deeply involved in the development of tourism to China, Sven decided to follow a different path. “He was the only operator allowed in China from the United States, which was a huge opportunity and a massive amount of work that completely consumed the organization. I was more interested in the nature-based origins of the company,” says Sven. “So I came up with this idea of forming a division that was called Special Expeditions [and was renamed Lindblad Expeditions in 2000]. I developed a business plan, which involved $20,000 in capital. I had accumulated $5,000. And I said, ‘If you put in $15,000, you’ll have 75% of the company,’ and he agreed. So that’s how I started in July of 1979. I bought out his interest a few years later. So this has always been an independent company from my father in that regard.”
Getting into Cruising: “I wanted to focus on Africa, India, the American Southwest. Then I got involved in chartering ships. First in Baja California, then in Alaska. Eventually, I just chartered more of them. After 9/11, I decided to jettison all land-based programs and just focus on ships because those were like our family, and you have to feed your family first,” Sven says with a laugh. “At the time, I felt the world was going to be complicated for a while. And we had a bunch of ships that were fixed-cost obligations. So it was survival. But then it began to make a lot of sense because it created a kind of focus.”
Building a Business: “We didn’t have a lot of capital in those days. So if I saw an opportunity to buy a ship, I’d go to the bank, I’d borrow money, I’d put personal guarantees on everything and then we had to work our asses off because we had to pay back our loans fairly quickly,” says Sven. “So we built a company based on older ships: We’d modify them for our purposes. They weren’t particularly luxurious, but they were suitable for what we wanted to do. We said, ‘The hell with luxury—we just need ships that can do the job, and we’ll focus on the idea, the personnel, the teams and giving people extraordinary experiences.’ We also had to focus on filling the ships, because otherwise the bank would come and eat us alive. So I was relentless, and historically, we have had very high occupancies.”
Small Ship Cruising: “The largest ship we’ve ever had is the National Geographic Explorer, which takes 148 people on polar explorations. The National Geographic Islander II could fit 68 passengers, but we only take 48, which is largely based on the fact that you have to have a license for every person, and it’s very complicated to get licenses in the Galápagos,” says Sven. “We have more space for singles, space for visiting scientists and more space for personnel. It’s got two different dining venues, a massive amount of outdoor space, a beautiful spa area, a sauna and a library. It’s so different than most ships in the Galápagos.”
Game-Changers: “Before we started in the Galápagos, there was no such thing as expedition leaders on any of the ships in the islands. There was a purser or a hotel manager who organized things, and people were put in groups of 12 or 14 and they stuck together and all did the same thing. There was no paddle boarding, no kayaking—we introduced all that,” says Sven. “We created a conservation education fund, which has been a model that several other companies have adopted in some form or another. We’ve been happy to teach them whatever we can, so that they can be successful. We have a deep relationship with the community, with the school system, with the Charles Darwin Research Station and with the national parks. We funnel about half a million dollars a year into conservation education. During Covid, we set up a micro loan program. We’re part of the fabric of the Galápagos and we’ve been deeply involved since the very beginning.”
Supporting Communities: Lindblad Expeditions’ presence in places like the Galápagos has been transformative. The company works with many local entrepreneurs, farmers and artisans. For instance, there’s Paola Garcia and her daughter Alexa, who support themselves by selling edible flowers to Lindblad Expeditions. Paola is a single mother, and her daughter just received an 80% scholarship to Thomas de Berlanga, a school on Santa Cruz Island that Lindblad supports. Or Gustavo Daza, who makes compostable bags from corn or oyster shells that are now being used as guest cabin trash cans. “I am a firm believer that we in the travel industry ought to be investing in the assets that we trade upon,” says Sven. “It’s not just philanthropy: It’s smart and it’s necessary and it’s our responsibility. After all, nobody’s going to pay good money to go to a degraded place, and the governments in many of these places are not necessarily able to do enough on their own. So why shouldn’t we—the users of whatever that resource is—participate in the health of that place and the financing of the support structure. Everywhere we go, we try to figure out how we can engage in such a way that we are part of the fabric in a positive way, not just the taker.”
Recovering From Adversity: “With Covid, we tried everything we could to keep things together in such a way that when it ended, everyone could come out the other side without having been destroyed by the process—from our personnel to the places that we visit. And I think we did a pretty good job of that. One thing I do believe is that businesses have to be prepared for how to cope because this isn’t going to be the last pandemic and there are all kinds of forces out there in the world that you have to contend with,” says Sven. “For instance, with 9/11, we said, ‘We’re not going to be defeated by this.’ We developed a campaign using quotes from Henry David Thoreau about the tonic of wildness and the healing power of nature. When you’re hurt, one of the best ways to counter that is to get out into nature.”
My Legacy: “We’ve always been a company that’s a team—it’s not just me. That’s one thing I learned from my father. My father was too much of an island. He was this incredibly brilliant person, and everyone else was at a very different level, and I always felt that he paid a heavy price for that,” says Sven. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to run a complicated business like this, you need really good people in lots of different positions. So if I drop dead tomorrow, the company would probably not skip a beat. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Well, they might be a little sad for five minutes, but they would carry on.”
Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs: “First of all, you have to be prepared to work your ass off. And you have to be prepared for steep learning curves. And you have to appreciate the value of making mistakes and learning from them,” says Sven.
The Danger of Expedition Copycats: “Everybody and their monkey has decided to get into the expedition travel field, and it doesn’t amuse me at all. Because the unfortunate reality is that people completely underestimate how complicated it is. They’ve decided that there’s a demographic audience that’s interested, so they build a nice ship, call it ‘expedition’ and hire a few people to do this or the other. But they’re underestimating what you need in order to run expeditions,” says Sven. “You need to have a deep understanding of geography. You need to have tremendous teams of people who know what they’re doing. Like Antarctica. People assume you can just navigate in Antarctica, but it throws curveballs at you all the time. The wind changes in an instant. There are plenty of places that are not well charted. I feel very confident that we have teams that have been doing this a long, long time. I absolutely worry about all these people entering this field, not from the perspective of competition, but from the perspective that there are going to be accidents.”
Impacting the Environment: “I worry about some of the places being visited by ships that are just too large. With our new ships, our numbers are highly considered. With larger ships, it’s way more economically viable, but it creates a very different dynamic in terms of managing people in these sensitive environments,” says Sven. “We don’t want to lose the integrity of what we offer people, so we’re not going to go beyond certain numbers. The experience deteriorates quite a lot, and the potential of causing unintended consequences increases dramatically.”
Favorite Places: “When people say, ‘I’ve done that,’ I cringe,” says Sven. “I go back to places a lot. I’ve been to the Galápagos 50 times, maybe more. I’ve been to Antarctica at least 10 times. What I find is that when you first go to a place, you can feel overwhelmed. You’re going nuts with your camera and you’re trying to maximize every second. When you go back, you get to focus on the nuances. You relax. It completely changes.”
What’s Next: “There are certain geographies that are misunderstood or underappreciated by Americans—which I would like to change,” says Sven. “For example, one area that I’m obsessed with is French Polynesia. Everyone has this idea that it’s so far away, but it’s just two hours further from L.A. to Tahiti than it is to Honolulu. The Polynesian people are unbelievably welcoming. The islands are absolutely gorgeous. The reefs are in very good condition. Also, French Polynesia is branded largely around Bora Bora, which is not a terribly interesting place by comparison to the other islands. I spent a month and a half there this summer exploring and traveled 2,800 miles. It’s a magnificently rich place.”
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