River Cruise Guide: Exotic Itineraries for Discerning Clients

Uniworld plans to re-offer itineraries on the River Nile on its River Tosca soon.

Uniworld plans to re-offer itineraries on the River Nile on its River Tosca soon.

River cruising is hot, so how do agents tap into it—and particularly into the market’s exotic side? First, talk to existing river cruisers who love the experience but have “been there, done that” on the Danube, the Rhine, and so on. Many may wish to consider a bit more exotic river trek across the globe.

Big-ship cruisers who previously sailed to the Caribbean, Alaska or the Mediterranean may also be interested. Why? “I often hear from clients that they are tired of the mega ships and the crowds that come with them,” says Ann Craig-Cinnamon, franchise owner, CruiseOne, Indianapolis, IN. She says these clients often like the idea of traveling on smaller vessels.

Third, past tour guests often make great leads. They can visit multiple destinations, just as they’d do on a tour, but their deluxe accommodations will float along with them, and the vacation is highly inclusive. And they won’t have to pack and unpack continually.

Here’s a look at some of the latest exotic river offerings and trends in Asia, Africa and Australia.

RELATED: Top Cruise Itineraries for the Fall

Southeast Asia Surge

“Personally, when I hear the word ‘exotic’, my mind immediately goes to the Far East, and there are many river cruises that are offering fabulous itineraries to China and Southeast Asia,” says Craig-Cinnamon. On Mekong River cruises, she cites voyages that include tours of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as floating markets within the Mekong Delta and Siem Reap, Cambodia, the gateway to Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The dining room on the Zambezi Queen.

The dining room on the Zambezi Queen.

For example, Avalon Waterways is among many major lines with a selection of 2015 Mekong itineraries. Agents might suggest clients make the most of their air ticket investment and take a longer vacation. Avalon Waterways’ 22-night “Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River with Bangkok, Luang Prabang, Hanoi & Ha Long Bay” itinerary covers Southeast Asia in depth.

Clients with less vacation time could look at the line’s eight-day “Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong River” itinerary, which visits ancient Angkor, as well as Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City. Guests will get first-hand cultural immersion as they learn how rice paper, rice wine, and traditional candy are made in Cai Be.

Farther north, “while for years there have been river cruises on the Yangtze River in China, they were [typically] on larger vessels not owned by the multitude of European river cruise companies,” notes John Gawne, independent vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., Virginia Beach, VA. Now, however, the major companies serving North Americans are in the marketplace. For example, Gawne notes that Uniworld is heavily focused on China, the Yangtze River and Tibet.

All suites on the River Tosca come with a French balcony.

All suites on the River Tosca come with a French balcony.

Similarly, Craig-Cinnamon mentions a Viking River Cruises’ China vacation tha includes a Yangtze River cruise plus the top sites of China in just 13 days. “You visit the incomparable Shanghai and the bustling Beijing, with all its iconic sites such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. There’s a stop in Xian which is the home of the famous Terracotta Soldiers.”

To explore Myanmar in depth this winter, one option is AmaWaterways’ 16-day “Hidden Wonders of Myanmar” from Yangon on the new 56-passenger AmaPura. It features full balcony, French balcony or twin balcony accommodations, ranging from 285 square feet to 420 square feet.

One perk of river cruising, and certainly in far-flung exotic locales, is the cultural immersion and many included shore tours. For example, at Pyay (Prome), AmaWaterways’ guests head out on a walking tour and visit the archaeological museum of Sri Ksetra. Pyay is home to more than 80 gilded pagodas.

Cruisers also go ashore daily for village visits, trishaw touring and cultural immersion, and historic fort, monastery and pagoda tours. In Bagan, they take a Mt. Popa excursion and visit Shwezigon Pagoda and Ananda Temple. They also go sightseeing via horse-drawn cart in Inwa. Special onboard highlights include a cultural show, puppet show, and lectures and discussions about Burmese culture.

One special interest hook? Gawne believes Southeast Asian river itineraries particularly appeal to World War II and Vietnam veterans. “Myanmar, formerly Burma, provides access to areas some had last seen in World War II,” he says, adding that “the Mekong—with access to Vietnam and Cambodia—provides access to veterans who were there during that conflict and are seeking to revisit under better circumstances.”

Rivers Down Under

Exotic river cruise opportunities exist on all continents except Antarctica. Seasons too can differ, depending on whether the river is in the southern or northern hemisphere. That can open up unexpected opportunities to book.

“When European rivers are wrapped in snow during our winter, it is summer in Australia,” says 35-year industry veteran Craig Satterfield, expert cruise counselor, SureCruise.com, Las Vegas.

Since the Murray River extends through a large territory within the Australian continent, including Queensland, New South Wales and much of the Outback, “I recommend the 120-passenger paddlewheeler Murray Princess which offers cruises for three and four nights, or a back-to-back with a different itinerary to make it seven nights,” says Satterfield.

Operated by Captain Cook Cruises, Murray Princess departs from Mannum, a small historic town east of Adelaide. Satterfield says this inclusive Australian river cruise includes such features as guided tours of the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve and nature and wildlife sanctuaries. Plus, guests take a winery tour and have many opportunities for spotting kangaroos, wombats, black swans and hundreds of species of birds.

This cruise offers the “comfort zone” feel of exotic travel in an English-speaking country. And from Satterfield’s perspective: “This cruise offers a unique look at the land down under that most Americans know little of.”

Exploring Ancient Egypt

Many major river lines ceased cruises on the Nile during the height of the political unrest, but some operators are offering 2014 or 2015 voyages. Abercrombie & Kent offers multiple dates for its four-night Nile cruise, which is coupled with additional nights on land this fall. Sailing on Sun Boat IV, guests will visit the Pyramids in Giza, sail the Nile in a felucca (a small boat), ride a camel, and learn to make an Egyptian delicacy onboard the vessel as part of a Chef’s Table culinary experience, among other perks.

In another positive development, The Travel Corporation said in mid-June that its brands will be returning to Egypt during the 2014-2015 season. Contiki and Busabout, two youth brands, will return to Egypt first, followed by Trafalgar, Insight and others. River line Uniworld expects to resume Nile cruises in September 2015.

“Yes we have started to get inquiries for Egypt from our guests, so we want to be proactive in re-entering the market,” Guy Young, president of Uniworld, told Travel Agent. He stressed that the river line had a very successful operation in Egypt in the past in terms of occupancy levels and client feedback.

“Our plan will be to offer—as we have in the past—three itineraries,” Young said. That entails three-, four- or seven-night Nile cruises on the upscale, refurbished River Tosca between Luxor and Aswan, plus land touring.

Travel dates and pricing will become available to the trade during the next few months. For Craig-Cinnamon, it’s very good news: “There is nothing like sailing the most famous river in the world and docking right next to 4,000-year-old temples.”

Into Africa on the Zambezi

Operating along a 14-mile section of Africa’s Chobe River, the Zambezi Queen is owned by the Mantis Group, which has hotels and eco-resorts worldwide. While the river vessel covers a relatively small territory during the cruise, it’s the wildlife that stars here, not normal port calls.

Essentially, it’s a scenic river cruise along an open area of river. Guests can go on game drives or simply relax onboard with a cool drink in hand as they watch elephants, hippos, crocodiles and birds near the 14-suite vessel. The Mantis Group offers two- or three-day sailings, and AmaWaterways also sells cruises on certain dates as part of a more extensive African package.

“Africa is another 2015 [exotic] product getting more focus,” says Gawne, who adds that while Nile cruising has been affected by political turmoil, Africa safaris and wildlife cruising are good alternatives to consider. He cites AmaWaterways’ itineraries that this year begin in Cape Town, followed by a flight to Kasane on the Chobe River for a four-day cruise on Zambezi Queen. Included excursions take guests to national parks and game reserves, before they head out to Victoria Falls and the trip’s conclusion in Johannesburg. Clients can expect pampering and high-end digs.

All of the above are just some of many itineraries river companies are now offering across the globe. These sail through exotic locales while providing the essential creature comforts their guests expect.