A short history of cruises across the Northeast Passage

Only a handful of ships have sailed through the Northeast Passage with tourists. 

Seattle-based Quark Expeditions, a leader in polar travel, is credited with organizing the first such transit in 1991 by chartering a Russian icebreaker. The trip took place on Sovetskiy Soyuz, a nuclear-powered vessel designed to keep trade routes open in the Russian Arctic. There were about 100 passengers on board. 

Quark soon offered several more voyages across the Northeast Passage on chartered Russian icebreakers, including a 1992 trip on Sovetskiy Soyuz and a 1993 trip on sister ship Yamal. A voyage in 1994 took place on Kapitan Dranitsyn, a non-nuclear Russian icebreaker. More recently, Quark organized transits in 2008 and 2016 on the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.

Several other expedition cruise companies have followed Quark into the Northeast Passage in recent years with trips on chartered Russian vessels. Still, the voyages have remained relatively rare, and until four years ago, no non-Russian vessel had traveled the route with tourists. 

In 2014, German luxury line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises won approval from Russian authorities to send the 175-passenger expedition ship Hanseatic through the waterway, becoming the first company to offer a transit on a western cruise vessel. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has since operated three more Northeast Passage transits.

For now, Hapag-Lloyd remains the only cruise seller operating Northeast Passage voyages on non-Russian vessels. But it soon will have company. Luxury line Silversea in July announced plans to send its 144-passenger expedition ship Silver Explorer across the passage in 2019, and Lindblad Expeditions plans to send its new polar vessel National Geographic Endurance across the waterway in 2020. Also promising its first Northeast Passage trip by 2021 is France-based Ponant.  

Milestones in Northeast Passage cruises: 

1991: Quark Expeditions organizes the first transit of the Northeast Passage by a vessel carrying paying passengers. The trip takes place on the chartered Russian icebreaker Sovetskiy Soyuz, which follows an east-to-west routing that includes a detour to the North Pole. 

1992: Quark offers a second Northeast Passage voyage on the Sovetskiy Soyuz billed as the first crossing with paying passengers on a west-to-east routing.  

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