|The Mekong Navigator // All photos by Haimark|
The Mekong River still delivers an exotic, experiential experience, perfect for veteran European river cruises seeking a different river cruise experience, but the good news for clients is that, increasingly, the standards of river cruising on the Mekong have risen. Many deluxe river vessels launched within the past few years and more are on order for major river lines.
A new cruise operator, Haimark, will launch a luxury Mekong experience, starting in winter 2013-2014. The company also plans exotic voyages on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and the Ganges River in India.
Based in Breckenridge, CO, Haimark is a U.S. company with U.S.-based procurement and contracting. The new company’s name reflects the cruise line’s three partners. All have extensive experience in river cruising and Southeast Asia.
Well-known to agents is Tom Markwell, the former vice president of sales and marketing for Pandaw River Cruises. During Markwell’s three-year tenure at Pandaw he was responsible for contracting for three new vessels on the Mekong for Uniworld and Avalon Waterways.
In 2012, he ventured off to form Haimark with another partner, Marcus Leskovar, also formerly with Pandaw's U.S. office and with years of hotel and cruise operational experience, and Giang Hai, an experienced ground operator in Southeast Asia.
The Haimark operation now handles land arrangements for more than 4,000 people annually to Southeast Asia; that occurs through seven ground offices under Hai's direction throughout the region.
Travel Agent talked recently with Markwell about his new venture. “By the end of 2015, we’ll have five ships on the rivers of Southeast Asia,” he said. That includes three new Haimark ships – one each for Vietnam, Myanmar and India.
Plus, Haimark plans to contract for two more vessels, one each for the Mekong and Irrawaddy; those will be chartered to a yet-unnamed U.S. supplier Markwell characterized as “a major river line.”
Back to Vietnam
Vessels have been plying the Mekong with western tourists since the mid-1990s, said Markwell. “The last three years it’s boomed,” he stressed. “Fortunately, the demand for river cruising in Southeast Asia has far from diminished.”
Based on that burgeoning demand, Haimark has contracted the construction of the Mekong Navigator, a 34-cabin luxury river vessel that will launch in September 2014. The vessel is being built by Binh An, a privately owned Vietnamese shipbuilder.
The 68-passenger Mekong Navigator will operate seven-night cruises from Ho Chi Minh City (My Tho) to Siem Reap (Kampong Cham). The preview brochure is here: http://issuu.com/haimark/docs/mekong_navigatgor_preview_brochure/1.
He noted that the cruising experience of the partners coupled with Haimark’s experienced ground operation means “we have the credibility of not being a reseller."
But with other major river lines already sailing the Mekong, how does Haimark plan to differentiate itself? “The Mekong Navigator definitely is luxurious,” Markwell said. “Both the onboard amenities and the vessel’s overall style and finishes puts it into a true luxury category.”
The new vessel has spacious accommodations. Guests can choose from two 545-square-foot Grande Suites, two 297-square-foot Prestige Suites, as well as 16 Signature Suites, 10 Vista Suites and four Superior Suites.
Markwell stressed that the Mekong as a river has “grown up” over the past five years. River vessel quality standards and the level of service expected by consumers have both increased.
“Now, guests really expect to receive the majority of services that they would have on a European vessel,” he said. For example, guests staying in the Grand and Prestige suites will be pampered with butler service. Suites on the upper two decks will have private balconies.
Having a maximum of just 68 passengers is a luxury perk unto itself, he believes. In addition, the culinary budget for the new Haimark vessel will be about double that on some other lines, according to Markwell.
Guests will dine in Le Marche, an elegant, comfortable onboard dining room with open seating. Expect buffets for breakfast and lunch and table service at dinner.
Guests may enjoy libations and conversation with other guests at Le Salon, the ship’s bar and lounge. Throughout the day, guests will enjoy complimentary coffee, bottled water, tea, local beer and local spirits with “wine flowing freely at dinner.”
Onboard activities? The Mekong Navigator will have a spa with two treatment rooms, fitness center, boutique, library and Internet lounge. and library. Guests can also catch some rays on the Sun Deck. The entire ship has Wi-Fi access.
To help entice North Americans onto a new river line, the lead-in, cruise-only pricing for Mekong Navigator voyages will be about be about $1,995 per person double occupancy, for a seven-night cruise in 2014-2015.
Plying the Irrawaddy
Beyond the Mekong, Haimark’s new Irrawaddy Explorer will sail Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, beginning in September 2014. This 28-cabin vessel will operate nine-night itineraries from Yangon (Prome) to Mandalay.
In Myanmar, the infrastructure is not what it is in many destinations along the Mekong. It’s more challenging. Markwell mentioned that people who stay on land in Myanmar complain hotels are sold out, “there’s not enough of this and that” and that prices for various items are insane.
“Our recommendation to tour operators and agents is that clients spend as much time on the ship and as little time in hotels as possible,” said Markwell. “That alleviates pressure off the budget and [helps mitigate] the challenges.”
Haimark’s Myanmar cruises will be nine nights, a bit longer than the typical seven-night Mekong cruise. The sailings, which will cover up to 150 miles a day, will allow consumers to experience the length of the river yet from the vantage point of a pampered floating hotel.
For U.S. and Canadians, nine nights is sufficient, he says, while others arriving from Australia or Europe may prefer a 10-to-14 night cruise; Haimark will have several add-on land options that combine the river cruise with a land visit to Inle Lake, the so-called "Venice of Burma."
Sailing from Calcutta
Haimark also will become the first U.S. company to deploy a new 28-cabin vessel on India’s Ganges River. The new Ganges Voyager will operate seven-night cruises roundtrip from Calcutta.
“We just booked the slip in the shipyard,” noted Markwell. “We’re moving along and have already sold about 30 percent of the product.”
He believes India offers huge potential for river cruising: “We got our sea legs on the Mekong and we recognized what the market needed, wanted and expected.”
While India is on the bucket list for many Americans, people often have concerns over safety and sanitation. But perception is not always reality, Markwell said, noting that the Ganges has lovely scenery and great cultural experiences and is even cleaner than some other Asian rivers.
Ganges Voyager will also provide a “controlled bubble” venue in which to see and experience those. “They will see everything they want to see, but then get right back onto the river vessel, a comfortable and safe environment,” said Markwell.
The voyages will cover about 600 miles roundtrip from Calcutta, which he described as a “beautiful British Colonial city with wonderfully preserved colonial architecture." Guests will visit Mother Theresa’s House and Orphanage as well as the recently restored Victoria Memorial Museum while overnighting onboard on the first day of the itinerary in Calcutta.
Inside, both the new Myanmar and India vessels will re-create an elegant British colonial atmosphere. Experienced chefs will serve both local and international fare and the vessels will have western-style onboard management. Calcutta also has a new airport, which should help with securing adequate air lift.
Sales and Marketing
Markwell views North America as “our back-yard” so he and Leskovar will handle the U.S. and Canada sales and marketing; Markwell is based in Illinois, Leskovar in Colorado.
In addition, Haimark has hired an Australian with a strong history of sales to cover the Australia and New Zealand markets. The company also just finalized an agreement with Luftner Cruises to exclusively represent its vessels in Europe.
“We’re at a good point timeline-wise for the marketing of the vessels,” Markwell said in late April. Currently the Haimark team is focused on pre-selling charters. He described business as “brisk,” with more than 30 percent of capacity already been booked as full ship charters from the U.S. and Australia
“In June, we’ll open it up to groups and FITs,” said Markwell. Also on June 1, the line’s Web site, a place where agents can secure information and make online bookings, will be up and running.
Agent commission will start at 10 percent and Markwell says that will rise up to 25 percent for the highest level of volume.
For further information, visit www.haimarktravel.com