What to Expect From Uniworld's India Expansion

The new vessel's top-level Maharaja Suite // All renderings and maps by Uniworld
The new vessel's top-level Maharaja Suite // All renderings and maps by Uniworld

Last week Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection said it will launch new 12-night “India’s Golden Triangle & the Sacred Ganges” land-sea itineraries that involve five nights on land and a seven-night Ganges cruise on a luxurious new river vessel, the 56-passenger Ganges Voyager II.

The first sailing is Jan. 9, 2016. Uniworld is chartering the vessel for 16 departures the first year.

It’s just another another example of how the most well-entrenched North American focused river lines continue to seek out the exotic. That said, others across the globe, including Pandaw Cruises, have been plying Asian waters for years.

Viceroy suite
Viceroy suite

Advisors Sound Off

What do travel agents think of Uniworld’s move into India?  “It’s phenomenal,” says Renuka Sahay, a Cruise Holidays franchise owner in Germantown, MD (http://rsahay.cruiseholidays.com), who says that India delivers a rich cultural and unusual experience for potential travelers.

“The rituals that take place on the river Ganges, along with the merging of all the different ethnic groups, will really allow people to experience a culmination of arts and culture,” Sahay notes.

Nancy Yoffe, owner, Cruise Planners (www.cruisechick.com), an American Express Travel Representative, in Spartanburg, SC, says “people like new and different options and this will give many people the opportunity to travel to a country they may not have been comfortable with or considered visiting by land. Americans like convenience and familiarity and seeing India by river ship will give them both.”

Guy Young, Uniworld’s president and CEO, acknowledges that one prime reason for his company's vigor in seeking out new river experiences worldwide is to satisfy his firm’s loyal past guests who want to try something different on their next vacation. He also said Uniworld is able to tackle India, a complex destination, because it has good regional partners. 

For example, a reputable Asian firm is building the new all-suite, 56-passenger Ganges Voyager II, which Uniworld will charter. For its luxury hotel needs, the hotel will exclusively use the Oberoi Hotels and Resorts.

A veteran of 15 river cruises, Luelle Robinson, an independent affiliate of Avoya Travel, (www.avoyatravel.com/experts/luellerobinson), Round Hill, VA, calls the Uniworld announcement “very exciting.” A veteran of 15 river cruises, she says that while the line has many great European itineraries, primarily on the Rhine, Danube and along France’s river, “I find that many of Uniworld’s loyal passengers are looking for new itineraries.”

She believes Uniworld has been an innovator with cruises in Italy and Portugal and says, “I am thrilled to see the cruise line offer new travel experiences to our guests.”  

Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur
Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur

Land Portion of the Itinerary

India can be a frenetic experience for many travelers, yet travelers definitely desire to see the main sights, says Young.  So Uniworld will start all of its new itineraries with five days on land – two night at the Oberoi, New Delhi; one night at the Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra; and two nights at Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur.

“Guests will stay at only gorgeous, highly rated Oberoi hotels, and it’s going to be very high-end,” said Young. During the land stay, guests will head out to tour Delhi, India’s capital, see Delhi’s Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, UNESCO World Heritage sites. In Agra, they’ll tour the Taj Mahal. And in “pink” Jaipur, they’ll tour the bazaars, fortresses and palaces of Rajasthan.

The second part of the itinerary is the roundtrip cruise from Kolkata in eastern India, giving clients a look at less-touristed destinations and the opportunity to immerse themselves in local culture. “We think it’s a great way to see India, which is a hectic place,” says Young, who calls the land touring in major cities followed by the cruise as “a great contrast” and "a good balance" for travelers. 

Sahay, who is of Indian origin, believes the itinerary will appeal to travelers interested in historical perspectives on human civilization and development. “People who love art and architecture will love this river cruise,” she notes, plus, she adds: “It’s great for couples who want to see love and romance carved into the stones of the Taj Mahal.”

While India won't have the mass draw that Europe does with potential cruisers, it will be a good option for those who like adventure and have a passion for conquering parts of the world most others never visit, according to Yoffe. She adds: “The key will be qualifying the client.”

A map of the itinerary
A map of the itinerary

Cruising the Ganges

Uniworld guests will sail on Ganges Voyager II roundtrip from Kolkata. At the Missionary of Charity in Kolkata, started by Mother Theresa in 1952, cruisers will walk through the permanent exhibition on her life and work and also visit her tomb. On a Kolkata panoramic city tour, guests will see many well-preserved British colonial buildings and tour the Victoria Memorial Museum.

At Bandel, guests will walk up a hill to the Hooghly Imambara, a Shiya pilgrimage center in West Bengal. Built between 1841 and 1861 by Haji Mohammad Mahasin, the two-story building offers basic housing to pilgrims, as well as classrooms where the Koran is taught.

Next, river cruisers will be transported through Kalna’s center city via a trishaw ride. They’ll visit the walled complex surrounding its terra cotta temples. Guests may return to the ship by trishaw or walk about 20-30 minutes through the town and local market to return to the ship.

Another port call is at Matiari, famed for the hand-crafted brass items that are created via traditional methods. “The making of those handcrafted brass items have been passed down through the generations,” says Young, noting it’s “a technique worth seeing.” The group also can join a crocket game and view or participate in a henna painting demonstration.

The cruise “calls” also will showcase much English Colonial architecture and remains of those buildings along the river. In Murshidabad, the Greek Doric-styled Hazarduari Palace was built by an English architect, McLeod Duncan, and is filled with Colonial-era antiques, artwork and manuscripts.

Mayapur, home to the Krishna Consciousness Movement (ISKON), is another stop. Guests may learn about the culture of these followers, view their existing temple, and see the construction of the new temple, which will be larger than the Vatican when completed.

Eco-enthusiasts will enjoy the potential surprises, such as spotting of freshwater dolphins or parrots.

Uniworld will also offer a two-night extension to Varanasi, considered the Ganges’ holiest spot. While this add-on isn’t part of the core program, it will likely appeal to those wanting the most in-depth India experience. Guests booking this will take a city tour, ride on a boat to observe a Ganga Aarti fire ceremony at sunset and head back on a boat to view Hindu rituals at sunrise.

From Sahay’s perspective, the Ganges is a holy river and people take a dip in the holy river to wipe out their sins. “There are many temples along the sides of the river and you would get a chance to see the Indian culture up close,” she says.

“Additionally, I think a lot of people who know about Indian culture already, like yoga and meditation, will probably enjoy it, says Sahay. “They will see these practices by religious leaders taking place all along the river.”

Accommodations Afloat

With just 56 guests onboard, the Ganges Voyager II is intimate. “The river can be extremely crowded and so having a smaller ship will be beneficial,” notes Sahay. “It’s a highly-populated area.”

The vessel has more than 20 standard suites of 261 square feet; two Heritage Suites of 280 square feet; two Viceroy Suites of 360 square feet; and one grand Maharaja Suite at 400 square feet.

The accommodations will have French balconies, cozy sitting areas, and flatscreen televisions. Roomy bathrooms will offer rain showers, robes, slippers and Molton Brown bath products.

Guests staying in the Viceroy Suites will enjoy daily butler service, laundry service, and one complimentary spa treatment per person. Guest staying in the Maharaja Suite will have those perks plus additional amenities including in-suite dining and scented baths in the in-suite deep-soaker tub.

“Whenever we are going to an exotic region, we try to look at the same standards, service, hospitality and food that we deliver in Europe and try to match those standards,” stressed Young. “We also want to make sure the product matches the destination, and the ship is very conducive to the destination itself. For example, on the Mekong, we matched the ship’s style, service and food to that region.”

Agents know that Tony Tollman, the daughter of Bea Tollman, Uniworld’s owner, is usually very involved in creating high-quality, detailed, ornate interior décor for the line’s newest vessels. So Young says it’s a tribute to the new ship’s owner that the design plans “run by” Uniworld were sent back with a directive by Uniworld and Tollman to just proceed as planned with what was depicted in their renderings and descriptions.

Combining both Asian and British Colonial flair in design and décor, the public areas on the new vessel will include the Governor’s Lounge with onboard entertainment and cultural events. An observation deck will boast 360-degree views, while guests also will access a spa and fitness center.

The East India Restaurant will have menus featuring both Indian-inspired cuisine and Western favorites. Young notes that clients can feel comfortable with both culinary processes and hygiene because Uniworld, as it does in other destinations, will assure it has a European operations staff in India.

The goal is to achieve the same standards on Uniworld’s ships wherever they’re sailing, as Young says the company has successfully done in the past in both Egypt and Southeast Asia’s Mekong region.

Inclusions and Advisor Insight

“Since Uniworld offers an all-inclusive and more upscale product, it appeals to my well-traveled clients who want a more intimate ship experience with an authentic cultural immersion in a region,” says Merci Cantwell (www.mercicruises.com), a Cruise Planners agency owner from Ashburn, VA. She cites the consistency her clients find with Uniworld’s product.

“I can trust my client’s experiences will be positive, and the company supports travel agents,” Cantwell adds, noting that it’s a way to make more commission than by selling less-expensive, less inclusive oceangoing cruises.

The new India itinerary includes (within the cruise fare) five nights’ accommodations at the Oberoi hotels in New Dehli, Agra and Jaipur; seven nights’ of suite accommodations aboard the Ganges river vessel; daily excursions; tipping for all local guides and drivers; and all transportation including the flight from Jaipur to Kolkata.

Also included will be 12 buffet breakfasts, 11 lunches and nine dinners. Shore-side dinners will include local beers and house wines, soft drinks, mineral water, tea and coffee. Shipboard, guests will receive soft drinks, mineral water, coffee and tea with all meals. The cruise fare also covers daily high tea as well coffee, tea and snacks 24 hours a day in the ship’s lounge.

“With the contrast between land touring and a beautiful relaxing river cruise, we think it will be very successful,” believes Young. While pricing is not yet available, he says to expect “high end,” given the level of accommodations and inclusions. Voyages will open for booking on Oct. 15.

At this time most of Yoffe’s clients are traveling to Europe for river cruises but she says: “Once that market has been visited and enjoyed, I certainly can see a few expanding to India. I probably will not see an immediate interest but once the seeds are planted, I believe it will be something my clients might consider down the road.”

As for the growth of river cruising industry-wide, “there does not seem to be any indication of the appeal lessening in the immediate future,” Robinson says. She believes India will have a very strong appeal for those clients that have already fallen in love with river cruising, and want to continue to see the world and do it with Uniworld.

From Sahay’s perspective: “Vietnam is picking up, and India has not been touched. It’s good they are starting with a small boat but I’m sure they will see they will see the demand for more.”

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