Asia's Waterways


Yangzi Explorer
Tauck’s Yangzi Explorer sails into the heart of China via the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges.


River lines are pushing into Asia with more gusto. In 2012, a slew of new and existing Asian river vessels will give clients diverse, Asian river voyages that ply Vietnam’s Mekong, Myanmar’s Irrawaddy, Borneo’s Rajang, China’s Yangtze–and beyond.

So why Asia and why now? Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., tells Travel Agent, “The river cruise companies are starting to spread their wings, now that they have fully addressed all major rivers in Scandinavia and Europe.” He adds that the river lines have been very aggressive in building new ships, and they need unique places to put new capacity. More importantly, “Southeast Asia is definitely one place people want to go, especially Americans who are avid travelers, as many villages are located on the rivers there,” he says.

In 2012, Pandaw River Expeditions in Asia will reign as the largest river operator in Asia with nine vessels. Some bear Pandaw’s name, others are branded for tour operators and river lines. Orient Pandaw sails Borneo’s remote Rajang River. Guests venture out on rainforest jungle treks, visit Iban longhouses and board an even smaller expedition boat for trips up less-accessible waterways.

Among the global river lines familiar to agents, Viking River Cruises started a new 15-day Mekong River program in Southeast Asia on the Tonle this year. “Our guests have requested that we expand so that they can experience even more of the world,” says Viking’s Chairman Torstein Hagen.

AMA Waterways introduced its second new vessel on the Mekong this fall. Joining La Marguerite, AmaLotus now operates cruises between Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

In 2012, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will introduce a new ship, River Saigon, and expand its China, Vietnam and Cambodia cruises and tours. It plans more than 100 departures on eight itineraries of 10 to 24 days.

Avalon Waterways will unveil its new 16-stateroom Avalon Angkor in 2012. Operating Ho Chi Minh City-to-Siem Reap cruises, the intimate vessel will have cabins with balconies. Tauck, Century River Cruises, President Cruises and Victoria Cruises are just a few of the many tour operators and river lines (some mentioned elsewhere in this story) sailing into the heart of China via the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges.

Victoria operates three- or four-night Three Gorges Highlights sailings between Yichang and Chongqing; a shore tour highlight is the Three Gorges Dam site. Tauck also uses Yangzi Explorer to take its guests to pagodas, pavilions and one relocation village, which was built when the Yangtze River Dam created rising water that obliterated some towns. Abercrombie & Kent also operates luxury voyages onboard Yangzi Explorer.

Targets and Trends

Who are the best clients to focus on for Asian river cruises? Our agent experts point out well-traveled people with a global mind-set, former tour clients and ocean cruisers. Alyssa Schulke, independent travel advisor and owner of Schulke Travel, a Brownell Affiliate and Virtuoso agency in Birmingham, AL, says: “The best clients for Asian river cruises need to have a sense of adventure and a real interest in getting to the heart of the country.”

She emphasizes that clients taking an Asian river cruise often see the trip “as a learning expedition where history and culture come to the forefront,” adding that temple visits, authentic lodging and local restaurants are most often requested by her clients. “There seems to be a trend toward digging deeper into a culture instead of glossing over the surface, which is good to see,” Schulke says.

Similarly, Debby Hughes, ECC, a CruiseOne franchise owner from Big Bear City, CA, says the luxury products she books most frequently are river cruises. “River cruising has a unique appeal—in that you can sail down the major waterways through the heart of Europe or Asia, visiting the major cities that were historically built along those waterways for transport reasons.”

Another perk cited by Hughes is that Asian river trips are both intimate and highly inclusive. “The luxurious ships usually hold less than 150 passengers, and the cruise fare [often] includes wine with dinner, shore excursions and sometimes even air fare,” says Hughes. Agent commission is often higher than many ocean cruise products.

Overcoming Obstacles

That said, some challenges exist for agents who wish to sell more Asian cruises. From the East Coast, getting to Asia is a much longer flight than a trip to Europe, and the ticket can be more expensive.

Stressful political and natural events globally also may deter some Americans from booking exotic Asian travel well in advance, according to Schulke: “Unfortunately, that often means the space and itineraries the guests want are not available when they are ready to book because they have been filled by travelers whose bookings are less affected by these events, such as Europeans.”

To counter objections, explain the lucrative early booking savings programs of the major river lines. Explain that booking further out will also provide more time to find air tickets at the right price.

Meanwhile, expect more growth in 2012 and beyond on Asian rivers. Wall says, “I believe the river cruise lines can get a premium for itineraries in these new markets and their growth there will continue.”

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