River Cruise Lines Go for the Exotic

by Ana Figueroa
River Cruise Lines Go for the Exotic

This is the third in a series on the boom in river cruises.

River cruise lines are ramping up their game—and  Europe isn’t the only playing field.

In the past few years, lines have jumped into more so-called exotic markets across Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.

Here’s what travel agents should know about the river cruise race to capture the thriving market in exotic destinations.  

Southeast Asia: A second home for river cruises
Southeast Asia has become a veritable second home for the river cruise industry.

One of the big reasons is access to shipyards. A number of cruise lines have either built or completely refurbished vessels in the region.

That’s a big selling point for repeat cruisers eager to see far-flung destinations without giving up the amenities they’re used to having in Europe.  

The history, landscape and culture of the region are, of course, its primary selling points. In Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, Mekong River cruises take in a landscape untouched by time.

Fishermen cast huge nets as they’ve done for generations. Temples, floating villages and markets come alive along the river that flows through the neighboring — but quite different — countries.  

Typical itineraries
River cruise tours typically begin or end in Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

Highlights include the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor. The former capital of the Khmer empire is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with iconic temples or wats. Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh is a key Mekong River stop, known for its palaces, stark monuments and museums.

Until a few years ago, the Mekong was the almost exclusive province of Singapore-based Pandaw River Expeditions. But AmaWaterways and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises have established a presence there.

Avalon Waterways and Aqua Expeditions will offer cruises on the Mekong in 2014.

So will Austrian-based Lueftner Cruises. The line has operated its Amadeus fleet of ships for thirty years in Europe. It recently began to market directly to North Americans.  

“We’re going to the Mekong because that’s where our clientele wants to go right now. And until recently, there hasn’t been a way to deliver a product that’s the caliber of what we offer in Europe,” said company spokeswoman Anna Lueftner.

Myanmar: The iconic Irrawaddy
Myanmar (also known as Burma) is even hotter than Vietnam and Cambodia at the moment. The country’s iconic Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River has beckoned a number of new entrants to the river cruise market.

The Irrawaddy is the country’s most important river, used as a trade route since 600 A.D. But it’s Rudyard Kipling’s poems that made it famous as the “Road to Mandalay.”

The river cruising trend here is a long time in the making.

The country’s military leaders only recently began to loosen the reigns a bit. The high-profile release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest was a universally-acclaimed step in the right direction.

Recent mutual visits by President Obama and Myanmar’s leaders are further signs that Myanmar is opening up to the West.

Today, the river still holds vestiges of its days as colonial Burma. But it’s the centuries-old agrarian lifestyle, sacred Buddhist shrines, and monasteries and temples as far as the eye that are the draw.

Historic Mandalay
River cruise itineraries include historic Mandalay, the country’s former capital of Yangon (Rangoon) and Pagan (Bagan), once home to 10,000 temples.

Orient Express has offered river cruises on the Irrawaddy since 1997 on its much-lauded Road to Mandalay vessel. This year the company introduced a new ship, the Orcaella, which also tours the Chindwin River on the border with India.

Viking River Cruises is introducing a new itinerary in Myanmar in 2014. AmaWaterways makes its debut there in 2014 as well, along with Lueftner. And Pandaw will operate a total of eight vessels in Myanmar in 2014.

The other exotics
Southeast Asia isn’t the only exotic destination attracting river cruise lines.

The Peruvian Amazon is also making news. River journeys through the world’s largest and most diverse rainforest are the stuff of legend.

They’re attainable now with all the creature comforts of a European cruise.

Helena, Alabama-based International Expeditions has introduced a new vessel, the Estrella Amazonica to its fleet. The line specializes in immersive, educational and lecture-filled journeys.

Luxury operators Delfin Amazon Cruises and Aqua Expeditions each operate two new or newly-refurbished intimate vessels.

Avalon Waterways’ will use one of them, the MV Aria, beginning in 2014. In addition to an Amazon excursion, the new Avalon cruise tour will include Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

Africa too
Africa is also on the map.

AmaWaterways ventured there a few years ago with a program that includes game lodges and visits to Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Kruger National Park along with a Chobe River cruise. The line will also offer a rivers and rails holiday in 2014.

The venerable Lueftner is venturing far afield as well. It plans to operate on India’s Ganges in 2015. The itinerary from Calcutta will travel through West Bengal and Bihar to the holy city of Patna. It also includes Varanasi, Kalna and the famous Nawab Palace Hazarduari.

Next time: Cruising America's great rivers

RELATED STORIES
Boom in Europe River Cruises Makes Agent Expertise Critical

River Cruising Grows in Europe to Record-Breaking Levels





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