Cruising the Rivers of Southeast Asia

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AmaWaterways offers immersive excursions on the Mekong.
AmaWaterways offers immersive excursions on the Mekong.

In the past two years, AmaWaterways has seen a 50 percent increase in its Asia river cruise business from the North American market; with the addition of the Mekong in September 2012, Globus’ overall sales have grown 200 percent, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s 2013 Asia business is seeing a 54 percent growth over 2012. Meanwhile, since last year, Viking River Cruises has grown its Asia itineraries by 14 percent in China, Vietnam and Myanmar.With stats like these, you should be contacting your faithful European river cruise clients almost immediately, although before you do that, here’s a look at what’s new and details you might not have known, so you can best sell the inimitable and ever-evolving experience along Southeast Asia’s rivers.

Grande Suite on Haimark Ltd.'s new Mekong Navigator.
Grande Suite on Haimark Ltd.’s new Mekong Navigator.

new kid on the block

You might not have yet heard of Haimark Ltd., but with the ship they are building and launching in September 2014 on the Mekong, the Mekong Navigator, this river cruise company is one you want to keep an eye on. In fact, the Mekong Navigator will be the first of several vessels the line will deploy in Asia, as it plans to launch a ship in Myanmar, on the Irrawaddy, as well as on the Ganges, in India, looking to operate a total of five ships in the region by 2015.

Getting back to the 34-suite, 68-passenger Mekong Navigator, which is available for booking as we speak and has many sailings sold out even into 2015, this is one gorgeous ship.

“It’s a great ship because a lot of the people who are putting ships on the Mekong, they want it to look like a European product, but we want it to look like it belongs on the Mekong River, although we want to provide the same service standards offered on European rivers,” says Tom Markwell, managing partner, sales & marketing, Haimark Ltd.

The Mekong Navigator has a French colonial look, which Markwell says makes sense considering that Vietnam and Cambodia were French colonies, and offers a very bright, airy and inviting ambiance. There’s a sun deck, a library, a fitness center and spa, as well as a lounge and a dining area—all tastefully done—but what Markwell really emphasizes is the accommodations’ square footage. “Our lead-in cabins start at 256 sq. ft. and they go all the way to 584 sq. ft., so these cabins are huge for a river product. Beyond that, look at the amenities such as 500 thread-count sheets, a pillow menu with seven different types of pillows…when guests come into the cabin there is fresh fruit, fresh flowers, the whole ship is wireless. All of these things play into elevating the experience that guests can encounter on a river in Southeast Asia.” All the suite categories, with the exception of the Superior Suites, offer balconies, and the Grande Suite—the highest category—offers floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a private verandah.

The line has also been very careful in managing its starting rates for this itinerary—$1,999 pp—as well as keeping the cost down for step-ups between categories. “We want to make sure that if the Superior is not available and your clients have to book the Vista Suite category, that we are not going to jump up $1,000 pp. We are only going up $400. We feel very good about our price points,” he says.

The Mekong Navigator’s 7-night itinerary runs from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City and along the way visits the tourist landmarks of both Vietnam and Cambodia. Additionally, the line offers pre- and post-cruise extension programs.

Regarding commission for travel agents, “we offer up to 25 percent commissions on groups,” says Markwell, “so we are really aggressive because we recognize that this type of product is not one that travelers book independently. They are going to go to a travel professional because they need guidance and they need educating, so with that in mind we have to be closely aligned with the travel agent community.”

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers top-notch service aboard its vessels.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers top-notch service aboard its vessels.

oldies, but goodies”

Markwell points out that the popularity in Asia river cruising has continued to flourish from the time “the AmaWaterways, the Vikings, the Uniworlds came on; it kind of brought it to the attention of the mainline river cruise audience. I think that as these baby boomers continued to experience the product with these river cruise companies in Europe, they were also looking for things that were a bit more exotic.” Adds Kristin Karst, executive v.p. and co-owner of AmaWaterways, “These days, I think people want to connect in a more meaningful way. They want to learn about different people and cultures, and river cruising is perfect for that because it’s destination-oriented travel.”

In fact, on its 16-day Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong cruise/land itinerary, which is quite popular because, as Karst says, “most of our clients don’t just travel for a week to Asia; they like to get the cruise together with our pre- and
post-cruise program,” AmaWaterways offers a visit to an English-language school that the line has built close to Siem Reap. “We show the school to our clients; they are so happy—they sing with the children, they dance with them…it’s some of the best memories they take with them,” Karst says.

Other highlights on this cruise/land program (clients can also opt for the 8-day cruise-only portion) that begins in Hanoi and ends in Ho Chi Minh City include an overnight stay in a traditional wooden junk on Ha Long Bay, something other companies charge for, Karst notes, as well as visits to local markets, temples, a silk weaving village and a rice paper and candy-making workshop.

AmaWaterways has two ships plying the Mekong River—the 124-passenger AmaLotus and the 92-passenger La Marguerite—and Karst stresses that what sets AmaWaterways apart from its competitors are the large staterooms and suites, and amenities such as a pool. “All our staterooms and suites are the largest of any ship on the Mekong River, and we have the only vessels on the Mekong designed with inside access for each deck. On many of the other ships, guests have to go around and access the cabin from the outside, which doesn’t allow them to offer private balconies and doesn’t give the clients the same privacy. Also, very few ships on the Mekong have a pool, but both of ours do on the sun deck; it’s great because of the weather over there.” And agents, take note, because Karst did mention that the top-end suites on both ships (624. sq. ft. on the AmaLotus and 452 sq. ft. on La Marguerite) are very popular and get booked very, very quickly. Rates for the cruise-only on the AmaLotus start at $1,899 pp; cruise/land, $3,998 pp.

According to Karst, the cruise line is 100 percent travel agent dedicated. “We know how important it is to keep the line of communication open and to provide timely information. We offer webinars, meetings one-on-one with our agent partners, host information cruise nights and have an agent-dedicated portal on our website.”

In 2014, AmaWaterways will be offering even more Southeast Asia product for its travel agent partners when it begins sailing the Irrawaddy. “This is a destination that has been off limits for visitors for a long time and now is the perfect time to go there,” she says. “The political situation has stabilized, development is under control, ancient sites are still uncrowded and there is so much atmosphere and charm, and the people are just amazing. For that destination, we plan a small ship with about 28 to 30 cabins and we plan to launch in late-October 2014.”

Also new in Myanmar for 2014 is Viking River Cruises’ Memories of Mandalay journey, which will mark the company’s first-ever offering on the Irrawaddy. “Myanmar is a magical destination in Southeast Asia, and in the spirit of exploration, Viking wanted to offer our guests the opportunity to explore its rich history and spiritual wonders,” says Richard Marnell, senior v.p. of marketing for Viking River Cruises. The itinerary, which offers both cruise and land components, begins in Bangkok and then heads to Yangon, the former Burmese capital; clients board the newly refurbished 30-stateroom, 60-guest Viking Mandalay in Pyay on day five of the 16-day itinerary. Most departure dates are sold out, except for some in August and September 2014; rates for those dates start at $5,000 pp.

So what sets the Viking experience apart from its competitors? According to Marnell, Viking—which also plies the Mekong with two ships for the line’s 15-day Magnificent Mekong itinerary—the company provides “our passengers with carefully curated itineraries that spotlight the art and architecture, history and culture of the people in our Asia destinations. Our Cultured Curriculum programming offers passengers an in-depth understanding of the places they visit through enrichment such as language lessons, performances, traditional art demonstrations and more. For example, in Myanmar, our guests can watch local craftsmen create tapestries and woodcarvings and wander through local marketplaces. These experiences can only be found on a Viking river cruise.”

You might also want to let your culinary-inclined clients know that Viking offers culinary experiences “designed,” points out Marnell, “to immerse guests in their destination and foster greater cultural understanding.” As such, the onboard offerings reflect traditional local cuisine and the Viking concierge service can help connect passengers with local restaurants.

Marnell points out that the popularity in Asia river cruising has exploded because river cruising offers travelers in Asia “a chance to explore many aspects of every country, from cosmopolitan cities to ancients towns rich with history and traditional small villages. It’s a convenient, relaxing and highly scenic way to travel.”

That belief, that the Asia river cruise product really allows travelers to immerse themselves in the destination, is one echoed by other river cruise line principals and, as such, lines are constantly adding experiential excursions. For example, as in AmaWaterways’ school visit, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection supports an Apsara dance school in Siem Reap, and Uniworld guests, says president & CEO Guy Young, “have the opportunity to visit the dance school during the line’s 14-night Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong cruise/tour. Guests learn about the history and significance of the Apsara dances and dancers.”

Other unique aspects of this journey, the company points out, are that guests travel to floating villages and sites by way of a luxurious sampan, while the cruise itself is aboard the 58-passenger River Orchid, which, according to Young, “offers spacious staterooms and inviting public areas, and has a colonial design that is very appropriate to the destination.” Rates in 2014 for Uniworld’s cruise/tour start at $4,699 pp.

But if it’s the smallest ship in Southeast Asia your clients are seeking, then point them to Avalon and its 16-stateroom Avalon Angkor, which sails on the Mekong and offers 172-sq.-ft. staterooms. “It’s half the size of the ships offered by our competitors,” says Ryan Droegemueller, product manager for the Globus family of brands for Asia, South Pacific, South and East Africa. “This really is the number one reason people book with us. It’s a more intimate experience and there’s less time getting on and off the ship for shore excursions.” In fact, the Avalon Angkor is the only ship, he says, that sails all the way to/from Ho Chi Minh City. “Other operators have to coach 2.5 hours outside of the city. This also adds to the overall experience as sailing in/out of the city is very different than the scenery on the rest of the river.”

The company offers the 14-day Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River journey that begins in Bangkok and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, with clients boarding the ship in Siem Reap. Additionally, there are 16 different itineraries clients can opt for because Avalon, due to its Globus ties, offers a slew of add-on excursions. They offer unique experiences, stresses Droegemueller, such as a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City and a visit to a local farmer’s home where clients will learn about his family and day-to-day life. “This experience,” Droegemueller says, “allows our customers to really get a feel for the daily life in this part of the world. It has been remarkable how many of our customers have commented that these experiences are the highlight of the trip.” Rates for the 14-day itinerary start at $3,499 pp in 2014.

Viking River Cruises currently sails the Mekong and will begin sailings on the Irrawaddy in 2014.
Viking River Cruises currently sails the Mekong and will begin sailings on the Irrawaddy in 2014.

air to asia

“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh my god, Asia, it’s going to be so expensive,’” says Haimark’s Markwell. “I just flew Chicago to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, roundtrip, I paid $1,200. I pay more than that to go to Paris in August. Yes, it’s a long flight, but what you are getting from this long flight, what you are paying for is such great value.” Adds AmaWaterways’ Karst, “The cost of airfare doesn’t seem to be a big deterrent for our guests. Asia is on their bucket list and nothing is going to keep them from seeing it.”

You can work with many of the cruise lines to secure international air for your clients.

asia river cruises— a booming market

Christine Duffy, president & CEO, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), says that there are a number of factors behind the boom in river cruising in Asia. “First, globally river cruising has become one of the fast growing sub-segments of cruising. Second, Asia is also one of the fast growing regions for cruise lines deployment for both ocean liners and smaller vessels. And lastly, Asia as a cruise destination is appealing to more and more travelers seeking exotic locales. A number of CLIA member lines have been operating river cruises in the region for years; however, they’ve increased capacity in recent years and we’re also seeing new lines enter this exciting market.”

Ships launch in Myanmar.
Ships launch in Myanmar.


When we asked Carol Dougherty of Horizons Travel & Cruises in Rochester, MN, and an affiliate of TRAVELSAVERS, why she thought river cruising on the Southeast Asia rivers was gaining in popularity, she had an interesting point of view. “Many of us grew up in the Vietnam War era and are curious about how the area has recovered from the war time. The age group most interested corresponds with that time in our history. It’s also a relatively safe area compared to other parts of the world,” she points out. She says she targets “adventure-minded seniors (55+), because usually retirees have the time and money to participate in this type of cruise experience.”


ships launch in myanmar

Last month, Orient-Express launched a brand-new luxury river cruiser, the 25-cabin and -suite Orcaella, in Myanmar. The ship—which joins sister ship, Road to Mandalay that has been cruising the Irrawaddy River for the past 18 years—offers interconnecting cabins, as well as floor-to-ceiling glass doors with Juliet balconies opening onto the river. The ship offers four itineraries on both the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy rivers. The 11-night Discovering the Chindwin River itinerary, for example, departs from Mandalay and sails up the Chindwin River along the foothills of the Himalayas.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in demand for river cruises in Myanmar,” says Gary Franklin, managing director of Orient-Express Trains & Cruises, “and so now feel this is the right time to increase the diversity of experiences we can offer our guests.” Rates start at $5,610 pp.

In late 2014, Sanctuary Retreats—known for its camps and lodges in Africa—is launching the newly built, all-suite, 48-guest Sanctuary Ananda, which will begin 3- to 11-night sailings in Myanmar for a total of eight itineraries. The longer 7-, 10- and 11-night Exploration Cruises will explore the Upper and Lower Irrawaddy rivers as well as the Chindwin River and will offer “guests access to less-traveled parts of the country,” the company says. Rates for the Dec. 3, 10 and 17, 2014 sailings on 3-night itineraries start at $2,622 pp for a Deluxe Suite.

Archived related articles (available on issue-archive):
River Cruising Continues to Make Big Waves (November 2012)

contact information
: (800) 626-0126; or
Avalon Waterways: (877) 797-8791;
Haimark Ltd.: (800) 798-4223;
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: (800) 868-7905;
Viking River Cruises: (866) 200-2012; or