As river cruising continues to boom guests are setting their sights further afield and river cruise lines are introducing new ships and itineraries to meet the growing demand for exotic destinations.
The Mekong and Irrawaddy have experienced the biggest growth in long-haul river cruising. The Mekong running through Cambodia and Vietnam provides clients with the opportunity to experience two fascinating countries and the contrasting cities of Siem Reap – gateway to the Emerald Waterways ancient Angkor Wat temples – and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. A decade ago Burma, now known as Myanmar, was a destination for the intrepid few, but political stability and a growing tourism infrastructure have opened up this beguiling country to western visitors.
Andy Harmer, CLIA Europe vice president operations said: “The Mekong is southeast Asia’s greatest river while the Irrawaddy is fast becoming very popular now that it’s easily accessible to visitors. A river cruise is the best way to get into the heart of the regions, exploring different cultures and meeting local people.”
Pandaw founder Paul Strachan pioneered modern day guest cruising on the Irrawaddy in the 1990s, and recently launched the 18-guest Kha Byoo Pandaw which cruises from Pagan to Katha on the Upper Irrawaddy.
Sales and marketing manager Sven Zika said: “The boom started after the country opened up in 2013. Since then much has changed, but the way of life along the Irrawaddy has thankfully remained largely unchanged. Pandaw guests are able to observe many of the cultural highlights as well as stops at villages along the way, where time has stood still and a lack of roads means they are only accessible via the Irrawaddy.”
Ultra-low drafts enable Pandaw vessels to reach remote areas, and in September the 24-guest Yunnan Pandaw launches to sail on the Upper Mekong from Vientiane, in Laos, to China’s Jinghong; a 14-night trip that can be added to the seven-night Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap cruise.
Mainstream lines debuting on both rivers include Scenic, which launched the 68-guest Scenic Spirit in January and has its first standalone Southeast Asia brochure. With a staff-to-guest ratio of almost 1:1, the 64-guest all-suite ship with facilities including a pool and open-air cinema offers five Mekong itineraries through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Sibling vessel Scenic Amber launches on the Irrawaddy in September.
“Our success in Europe has driven us to look for new, exciting voyages for our customers,” said managing director Chris Townson. “Scenic endeavours to be in keeping with trends and the Irrawaddy and Mekong itineraries were a natural progression to achieve that goal.”
Scenic’s mid-market sister brand Emerald Waterways exclusively charters the Mekong Navigator and for 2016/17 offers a collection of itineraries ranging from 14 to 21 days alongside a seven-night Ho Chi Minh City to My Tho cruise. Excursion options including cooking and lantern-making classes, attending an imperial banquet and taking part in a traditional Buddhist water blessing.
In 2015 Avalon Waterways launched two 36-guest vessels – Avalon Siem Reap and Avalon Myanmar – which sail on the Mekong and Irrawaddy, respectively. The line used to offer cruise only prices for Asia, but is now packaging itineraries with flights to make it easier for agents to quote to their customers.
Last August AmaWaterways welcomed the new 124-guest AmaDara to the fleet. Sailing on the Mekong, all 62 cabins have balconies and the ship includes a spa. The line is currently offering free flights and £500pp savings for 11-night itineraries departing in March 2017, subject to availability. Savings are also being offered on the all-suite Myanmar vessel AmaPura.
AmaWaterways operates in partnership with APT, and the Mekong vessel AmaLotus has undergone a refit. All cabins now have a balcony and there’s a new private dining room and Vietnamese-inspired cafe.
Viking, the largest river cruise line, operates a 56-guest vessel on the Mekong and Irrawaddy and head of sales, Neil Barclay said: “It’s a great alternative for agents to suggest to clients who have already cruised around Europe, or for land-based clients looking for an adventurous holiday destination.”
By Jeannine Williamson
A river cruise is less tiring than land-based travel and guests only need to pack and unpack once.
Mekong and Irrawaddy itineraries provide authentic experiences, exploring many places untouched by commercialism and mass tourism.
Suggest Asia cruises to active, open-minded clients with a sense of adventure.
The best time for cruises on both rivers is during the cooler, dry season from November to March.
Ships are small and intimate and friendly staff provide a personal touch.