For serious travellers, the best ventures are found in out-of-the-way places and for many South America is the exotic destination of choice. With 14 countries there is plenty of ground to cover in this vast continent, which is the biggest challenge for lines setting up itineraries in the region.

Compounding this situation is the political instability of some countries in the north, which has resulted in incidents of social unrest, leaving them out of bounds for tourists.

“Carnival sails to Colombia and Venezuela, but unrest has caused problems for US passengers,” explains Giora Israel, vice-president of strategic planning for Carnival Corporation. “They have beautiful cities that people want to visit, but because of their relationships with the US, they are not destinations for Americans.”

Practical journeys

Carnival Cruise Lines ran three around- South America journeys this year, with subsidiary lines Seabourn, Costa, Princess and Holland America offering more regular cruises. But with the average voyage lasting seven days, the size of the continent means that, apart from local cruising, the typical journey is almost impractical for a vessel departing from a US port.

“Developing reliable partnerships with local agents is crucial to a successful operation.”

“For general cruising, South America doesn’t cater for people who want short cruises and who live outside of the territory,” says Israel. “About 90% of passengers go on seven-day cruises and, for ships leaving the US, there are not enough places in South America to reach within this time.

“Carnival Corporation offers long cruises, taking about 45 days and carrying 2,000 passengers, but we also have smaller ships that depart twice a week that carry 5,000 passengers each on short cruises. These smaller ships carry more passengers than our around-South America cruises will do in a year.”

International cruising

The size of South American countries also makes it difficult for a cruise ship to qualify for international cruising when on shorter voyages, because it needs to visit more than one country.

“Americans can travel to the Mediterranean and spend a couple of days in, say, Barcelona, which takes about the same flight time to get to as it does to Rio de Janeiro, but from Barcelona you can visit several countries within a few days, which we can’t do in South America,” says Israel. Most of Carnival Corporation’s local cruise business in South America is done through Costa Cruises and local company Ibero Cruceros.

“For passengers sourced within South America, 90% are Argentineans and Brazilians going to Buenos Aires from Santos or Rio and vice versa,” says Israel. “We only have local trips there because these are the only places they can go to.”

Inside knowledge

When setting up a new destination, local knowledge can make the difference between just another port and an incredible destination experience. “Most South American countries have long coastlines but few ports have an existing tourist infrastructure, and despite sufficient potential, it takes time to develop a workable product,” says Peter Cox, director of itinerary planning and development for Yachts of Seabourn, a division of Carnival Corporation.

As well as ensuring all the practical elements are in place, local guides and suppliers must understand the concept of tourism and, in particular, what will give luxury passengers a genuine South American cruise experience. “It’s worth all the hard work, especially in places where we will continue to visit,” says Cox. “Our guests pay a lot for their cruises and we have to deliver what they expect.”

Delivering the goods

The Amazon is a major attraction, which at over 4,000 miles long, does not lend itself to the big-ship style of cruising. “From a luxury cruising perspective, there are not enough destinations on the Amazon that can deliver a vacation that matches guest expectations of such an exotic area,” says Cox. “It’s a wide river and there isn’t much to see from a cruise ship because the navigation channel rarely runs close enough to see the rainforest jungle.”

The practical solution is using river boat tours. For example, Seabourn anchors in the river basin at the mouth of the Curua Una River, an Amazon tributary, and charters flat-bottomed river boats, which can navigate in shallow waters and allow guests to visit the local Caboclo villages.

“Despite the challenges that South America presents, it is a destination that tourists want to visit.”

Local knowledge is crucial, especially as the conditions in the Amazon change from season to season, depending on rainfall and snow melt from the Andes, which can mean that the location used for an event in the past may have suddenly vanished and a new one needs to be developed.

“Developing reliable partnerships with local agents is crucial to a successful operation,” says Cox. Even so, some problems arise that a local agent cannot help with. Different countries also require different paperwork, which can be made much harder by ports that have their own regulations, and who may announce them without warning.

“Changes in local government can trigger new regulations or a different interpretation of regulations,” says Cox. “Generally, our pursers and local agents are aware of these ahead of the voyage, but some countries are notorious for coming up with new fees and late regulation changes.”

Growth prospects

Despite the challenges that South America presents, it is a destination that tourists want to visit. “It is an amazing continent with fantastic potential,” says Cox. While it holds much promise for luxury lines, Israel takes a different point of view when it comes to general cruising.

“The South American industry sourced predominantly in Brazil and Argentina will continue to develop,” he predicts. “As for cruises sourced by North Americans, I don’t see this changing much. South America doesn’t allow itself to grow much in general increasingly want to visit. cruising because of its geography.”