River Cruising Grows Up

Baby Boomers Are Jumping On BoardAvalon new head

It’s no coincidence that river cruising continues to boom as Baby Boomers expand on their collective purchasing power. The last of the Baby Boomer generation reached 50 in 2014, and today, this generation comprises the most powerful consumers in the marketplace. Baby Boomers are 77 million people strong—and they outspend other generations by an estimated $400 billion each year on consumer goods and services, according to the U.S. Government Consumer Expenditure Survey.

And while some of their priorities might vary, if there’s one thing Boomers do agree on, it’s the importance of spending money on travel. AARP’s 2016 Top Travel Trends found that an astounding 99 percent of the Baby Boomers they surveyed intended to travel this year, with 45 percent expecting to take an international trip. Reinforcing this finding, British Airways recently surveyed over 2,000 U.S. Baby Boomers (55 and over) and discovered that not traveling enough is one of the biggest regrets for one-fifth of the respondents when thinking back on their life so far.

“Generational values tend to be persistent through time, and the desire for adventure and learning have been in existence since this generation was in its formative years,” says Brent Green, a writer, speaker and trainer about marketing to the Baby Boomer generation.

“I started my own international journeys at age 50 with the intention of getting my most active travel done before I hit my 80s,” says Green. “That’s the way my wife and I proceeded to do it, and we’re not atypical—that’s reflective of the overall Boomer propensity for adventure and active travel.”

The Rise of River Cruising

The journey itself is the experience on a river cruise, with cities and towns strung like pearls along the waterways. Europe is usually the first destination people choose, but as Patrick Clark, the managing director for Avalon Waterways calls it, the “river cruising travel style” is available around the world. That makes river cruising a great repeat option for travelers, with an ever-growing array of possibilities.

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Kakadu & East Alligator River Tour

“Once they’ve experienced it, people come back and choose river cruises in other destinations,” says Clark. “They want to enjoy that familiar experience of cruising on the river, whether it’s in Vietnam, Cambodia, China or the Amazon. For some of these more exotic destinations, it’s even more comforting for them to know they have the familiar ship, crew and food waiting for them at the end of the day.”

That’s one of the reasons river cruising has become the travel industry’s fastest-growing segment, with double-digit growth last year. Overall, it’s now one of the top three international travel destinations, up from #4 in 2015, according to a Travel Leaders Group survey this summer. The trend is even stronger among well-heeled travelers, with river cruising cited as the top travel trend (along with multigenerational travel) in the 2016 Virtuoso Luxe Report, sponsored by the international network of luxury travel agencies. 

Trish Mercer, a home-based Virtuoso travel agent in Columbus, Georgia, touts the ease of the travel experience as one reason that river cruising is “absolutely, positively going up” in popularity. “There’s almost always something interesting to see while you’re sailing, and then you pull up to shore and have the opportunity to be involved in things right away,” she says.

Mercer’s experience is echoed by travel agents who participated in the third Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook Report of 2016 by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)—more than six out of 10 (64 percent) expected to sell more river cruises this year. 

“River cruising is a great option for travelers who are looking to explore multiple memorable destinations in one vacation,” says Lorri Christou, SVP of strategic communications and marketing for CLIA. “River cruises offer an intimate and immersive experience for people to explore new and different cultures.” 
    

A Perfect Fit for Boomers

“When you look at river cruising, Baby Boomers represent the core of all the travelers on cruise ships,” says Clark. “That segment is living longer and they have a greater desire for travel than their parents.”

And as river cruising continues to develop and mature, increasingly sophisticated amenities are being offered that appeal to Boomers and differentiate the river cruise experience from a land tour or an ocean cruise.  “There’s more interest now in what’s happening with the cruise’s themes rather than just the destination, including a focus on things such as wine, heritage and biking,” says Daniela Harrison, a river cruise specialist with Flagstaff, Arizona-based Avenues of the World Travel. “Cruisers want a unique focus on the sightseeing portion.”

Baby Boomers are looking for all that and more. Here’s a look at five major trends in river cruising that Boomers are seeking out in their travel.

The Joy of Discovery 
First and foremost, travelers crave the unknown, and that makes discovering unique places the No. 1 must-have experience among Virtuoso’s Top Travel Trends for 2016.

Harrison hears that “more so with river cruising than anything else,” because it allows Boomers to explore a variety of places. “They want itineraries with multiple ports in a country that are close to each other so they get to know the region in depth, like sailing the northern part of the Rhine,” she says. “Plus, the excursions are more hand-crafted on a river cruise, and there’s more free time to stroll through the city afterwards to take it all in.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal for explorers when simply sailing down a river is such an ongoing sensory treat. “They’re interested in the scenery and what’s passing before their eyes constantly,” says Mercer.

Meaningful Experiences

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Another must-have reported by Virtuoso’s travel advisors is the quest for experiential travel in order to create the unforgettable memories travelers are looking for from a vacation. “Baby Boomers want to take a much deeper dive into a destination,” says Green.

He points out that immersive travel engages people in the “flow experience,” a phenomenon where travelers become intensely focused on the activity itself. “The flow experience increases mindfulness and overall contentment with what you’re doing and you become more productive. It’s not enough to just see the sights, you have to dive deep and engage in it. That’s the direction all smart travel is going for Boomers.”

Theresa Mullen with Enchanted Waterways agrees that river cruising gives people a story to take back home. “In addition to the included excursions, the optional excursions offer river cruisers the opportunity to enjoy cultural activities such as a Viennese evening concert or being welcomed into the homes of locals to enjoy home-made refreshments and conversations about their lives; visiting local schools and engaging in activities with students; and enjoying cultural presentations. On board, cruisers will enjoy dining on wonderfully prepared local cuisine, local guest lecturers and entertainers sharing their lives through history and local song and dance.”

Traveling with Family
An important part of creating meaningful memories comes from sharing those experiences with the people you’re closest to. Though river cruising has been traditionally considered a couples’ vacation, there’s been a recent rise in multigen travel on river vessels.

“Multigenerational travel is an indication of our times,” says Clark. “Everyone has busy lives and they don’t always have the time they want to spend together as a family. It’s often on a vacation that families reconnect. Where we see it the most is the Christmas Markets in Europe in December, and we also see it around theme cruises that focus on food, wine and music.”

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Not only does this include younger Boomers and their parents, it also means Boomers are traveling with their young-adult children. “I see more of the older millennials taking their Boomer parents and treating them to the cruise,” says Harrison. “They usually tend to do the more active itineraries.”

Healthy Activities
An emphasis on health and well-being is another key element for Boomers, who are living more active lifestyles and looking to maintain those lifestyles even while traveling. “In how they’re leading their lives in terms of diet and exercise, they’re much more conscious of taking care of themselves than perhaps the focus was of the previous generation,” says Clark. “River cruising is appealing to the Boomers who are attracted to a more active life.”

To meet the demand from cruisers, more adventure excursions are being offered as part of the experience, whether it’s going for a horseback ride over the hills or canoeing down the river.

“One thing that is really nice about a number of river cruises is they bring along bicycles, either traditional or electronically enhanced bikes that are very easy to ride,” says Mercer. “On some ships, you can ride 10 or 20 miles to the next stop and the people who don’t want to bike that day can stay on board. It’s something for everyone at every level.”

Hassle-Free Travel
The ease and convenience of sailing to multiple destinations along a river, without having to pack and unpack or deal with different hotels and transportation, is very appealing to Boomers. They want something new and exotic without a lot of the stress and inconvenience associated with traveling. River cruising suits that desire—it’s like staying in an intimate boutique hotel that floats from one destination to the next, making it an independent but controlled experience.

“You have some Boomers who are completely self-propelled, like two couples traveling together,” says Green. “On the other hand, there are other people who want the fully catered vacation where they show up and everything is handled from that point on and they don’t have to do a thing. Then there are those who want the hassles removed, but they want to be able to plan their own details.”

River cruising offers that flexibility, with the added benefit of all-inclusive pricing. “Now almost all river cruises are all-inclusive, so that peace of mind is very nice,” says Harrison. “Travelers have a wide selection of excursions they can choose from as part of the cruise, or they can walk off, do their own thing and add a little adventure of their own. It empowers the traveler to know they can’t make the wrong choice.”

Pandaw: Proven ships, new waters

It’s been 20 years since Scotsman Paul Strachan started taking people up and down the Irrawaddy River on a single chartered vessel in Myanmar. Since 1995, the founder of Singapore-based Pandaw River Expeditions has grown his enterprise in Southeast Asia into a fleet of 12 ships (and counting) and is now once again looking for that next unexplored stretch of river.

“In the last year, I thought, ‘We’d better do some more pioneering,'” said Strachan, who has in recent years been joined by a rapidly growing number of river cruise lines in Southeast Asia. “So, it’s exciting times. We’re opening up Laos, we’re building a ship there … and then we’ve got the Red River, up in the north of Vietnam … and we’re looking at possibly putting a couple Pandaw ships in India.”

As competition heats up in Southeast Asia with a flood of new river cruise vessels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, Pandaw is hoping to separate itself from the pack by introducing ever more remote and exotic river cruise destinations, while at the same time remaining true to its original vision.

“The ships we build today are much the same as the ships we built 20 years ago,” Strachan said. “They are the same style, which is something we believe in passionately. Something that is fundamental about Pandaw ships is that they are exactly how ships were 100 years ago on the Irrawaddy, and they were designed like that for a reason.”

Today's Pandaw vessels take their design cues from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. vessels of yesteryear.
Today’s Pandaw vessels take their design cues from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. vessels of yesteryear.

Pandaw emerged from the ashes of the Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., which in its 1920s heyday consisted of a fleet of more than 600 passenger and cargo vessels. In 1998, Strachan acquired the Pandaw, a steamboat built in Scotland in 1947 that he renovated and operated for several years. That vessel is now operated by Myanmar-based Ayravata Cruises. Strachan’s company built its first ship in 2001 to be almost a replica of the original Pandaw.

The look and feel of those Irrawaddy Flotilla vessels — colonial-style, three-deck ships with wraparound balconies — remain the unifying design of Pandaw vessels today even as newcomers such as AmaWaterways, Sanctuary Retreats, Haimark Travel and Aqua Expeditions have emerged on the Southeast Asia river cruise scene with larger vessels, indoor hallways, sprawling suites, spas and swimming pools.

“I know we sound very old-fashioned,” Strachan said. “But really, our clients, who tend to be very adventurous, very seasoned travelers, they’re not coming for the pool or the Jacuzzi. They do not want these things. And I’m afraid we’re very stick-in-the-mud about this.”

Instead, Strachan is focused on building river cruise vessels that foster a more social atmosphere with ample public spaces. The wraparound balconies, for instance, encourage guests to mingle and also facilitate the movement of fresh air as the vessels sail, something Strachan says is both a comfort and safety issue, offering stability to vessels that have more shallow drafts.

The simplicity and practicality of the design as well as the smaller size of the vessels is what the Pandaw founder says enables the company to explore further along various rivers in Southeast Asia and ultimately bring clients to more off-the-beaten-track destinations.

Pandaw’s new cruises

While the design of the Pandaw vessels hasn’t changed much in 20 years, more recently the company is pushing the envelope with new river cruise routes. This November, Pandaw is introducing a Mekong River sailing through Laos on the newly constructed, 20-passenger Laos Pandaw.

Pandaw's new itinerary in Laos launches in November.
Pandaw’s new itinerary in Laos launches in November.

The vessel will sail an 11-day itinerary that will begin in the French colonial city of Vientiane and continue north to Ban Paklay, Pak Lai, Tha Deua and the Unesco World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. There will be a stop at the Pak Ou Caves, and the itinerary will end in Chiang Khong, Thailand.

The Laos Pandaw is being custom-built with a shallow draft to sail the Upper Mekong. The staterooms will measure 180 square feet each, and there will also be an open-air lounge; a bistro-style dining room with outside seating and air conditioning inside; and a bar that will be open around the clock. The cruise-only price starts at $3,250 per person, based on double occupancy. Pandaw pricing includes all excursions, crew gratuities, meals, nonpremium drinks and airport transfers.

Additionally, Pandaw has introduced an 11-day Halong Bay and the Red River itinerary that will initiate a new route along Vietnam’s Red River. The sailing will take place on the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, which will reposition from the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia at the end of June.

Vietnam's Lower Red River, part of a new Pandaw itinerary for 2015.
Vietnam’s Lower Red River, part of a new Pandaw itinerary for 2015.

The itinerary will begin in Halong Bay. From there, the river cruise will head up the Kinh Thay River and on to the Duong River. There will be two days of sightseeing in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, before continuing on to the Upper and Lower Red River.

The Angkor Pandaw was built in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. It features 16 staterooms at 170 square feet each, and the public spaces consist of a main dining room, bar, lounge, shop and library. The cruise-only price starts at $2,340 per person, based on double occupancy.

Pandaw is testing the waters beyond Southeast Asia, as well. The company is chartering some vessels in India this year, with the hopes of perhaps introducing its own vessels there in the coming year. For 2015, Pandaw offered a single, 16-day departure on India’s Ganges and Hooghly rivers on the 40-passenger Rajmahal, which has already sold out.

Pandaw's new Ganges itinerary begins in the holy city of Varanasi.
Pandaw’s new Ganges itinerary begins in the holy city of Varanasi.

There is also a new eight-day cruise on the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India onboard the 46-passenger Mahabaahu, with departures starting next month.

The cruise will visit the largest river island in the world and will include an encounter with the Mishing people who inhabit India’s Assam region. Pandaw guests will also learn more about the aromatic tea the region is known for. Included will be an excursion to Kaziranga National Park and areas known for their single-horned rhinos, buffalos, Indian tigers and river dolphins. The snow-covered Himalayan Mountain range can be seen from the Brahmaputra River. The cruise-only price starts at $2,430 per person, based on double occupancy.

The company also added four departures of a new seven-day itinerary in southern India’s Kerala region starting in December, which includes a three-night land program in Cochin and a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam from Thottapally through Kanjipada and on to the Champakkulam village. The Backwaters of Kerala trip is priced from $1,530, based on double occupancy.

The Pak Ou Caves in Laos will be a stop on Pandaw's new Laos itinerary.
The Pak Ou Caves in Laos will be a stop on Pandaw’s new Laos itinerary.

“We’re constantly trying to go further and further up these rivers into remoter areas. That’s our ambition,” said Strachan, adding that Pandaw is hoping to ultimately introduce an itinerary that will include all six countries through which the Mekong River flows: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China.

Getting permission to sail across the border into China has proven the biggest challenge and is what the company is working toward in order to be able to eventually offer a complete Mekong sailing.

Strachan said that he also isn’t opposed to looking at opportunities beyond Asia in places like the Amazon, for instance, if he were to find the right partners.

Courting more Americans

Pandaw’s largest customer base consists of Australians, followed by Brits and then Americans. But that’s something the company is hoping to change.

“We’re trying to grow our direct-sales market in America,” Strachan said, referring to Pandaw’s desire to sell more of its product directly to agents and consumers in the U.S., rather than predominantly through partner river cruise lines and operators. “That’s very important to us. We’re working on that.”

Pandaw doesn’t currently have a U.S. office, but San Francisco-based Sayang Holidays is the company’s preferred agent in the U.S. for booking Pandaw vacations.

Pandaw's new seven-day itinerary in southern India's Kerala region includes a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam.
Pandaw’s new seven-day itinerary in southern India’s Kerala region includes a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam.

As U.S. river cruise lines have been expanding beyond Europe into Southeast Asia over the past five years, many of them have partnered with Pandaw on various charters on the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers, including Viking Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Avalon Waterways.

But as demand for Southeast Asia picked up, so has shipbuilding competition. Pandaw isn’t the only game in town anymore. Some companies, such as AmaWaterways, forged their own shipbuilding partnerships in the region to develop ships they partially own, while others, such as Haimark Travel, are working to build vessels and partner with U.S. companies on charters, similar to what Pandaw has done.

In fact, Haimark was formed in 2012 by a group of three former Pandaw employees who struck out on their own. The Breckenridge, Colo.-based company has come on very strong in the last two years, building luxury vessels in Southeast Asia and India, which many U.S. companies, including Uniworld and Abercrombie & Kent, are now chartering.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to them. It’s amazing how they’ve grown so quickly,” Strachan said of Haimark. “It’s a completely different style from us, it’s a different market they’re going for.”

As for Pandaw’s market, the company continues to operate charters for several U.S. operators.

Last year, Pandaw hired Hugh Clayson to serve in the newly created role of commercial director. Clayson oversaw the opening of a global sales and marketing office for Pandaw in West London.

Luxury on the rise on Southeast Asia’s rivers

By Michelle Baran

The temples of Bagan, Myanmar.After Europe’s busy ship-christening season this spring, the river cruise spotlight is shifting to Southeast Asia for the fall, where the latest lineup of river ship launches is showcasing an ever-escalating level of luxury, service and amenities. So much so that it begs the question of whether this new crop of vessels could actually surpass the standards that have been set by Europe’s river vessels.

“It’s a very fair question to ask if [the ships currently launching in Southeast Asia] are in fact more luxurious that what is on offer in Europe. I wouldn’t say that they are more luxurious, but it’s a different definition of luxury,” said Tom Markwell, managing partner, sales and marketing, at Haimark Travel, which this month launched the first two vessels to set sail for the exotic river and small-ship cruise company.

In September, Haimark launched the 68-passenger Mekong Navigator in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the 16-passenger Irrawaddy Explorer in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma), vessels that are helping to usher in a new generation of luxury service and amenities on river cruises in this part of the world.

Others are raising the bar higher, too, such as Sanctuary Retreats’ 42-passenger all-suite luxury vessel the Sanctuary Ananda, debuting next month in Myanmar, and AmaWaterways’ 56-passenger AmaPura, which sets sail in Myanmar in November.

Those will be followed by more impressive river cruise launches in Southeast Asia in 2015 (see related story, “The latest batch of Southeast Asia ships”).

Vietnam vs. Vienna

What these new vessels represent is not just continued growth in demand for river cruising in Southeast Asia — where new ship launches on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River are shadowing an initial boom on the Mekong River that began several years ago — but an elevation of product in those destinations that is bringing it closer to what river cruisers have come to expect in Europe.

Life on the Mekong.Not long after introducing the Mekong in 2009, AmaWaterways created a separate business division for its non-European product called AmaVoyages. The idea was to manage expectations a bit — a subtle way to let passengers know that river cruising in destinations such as Southeast Asia and Botswana, where the company has exotic river itineraries, does not mimic the product in Europe.

It’s not that the product is inferior; it’s just different. In fact, river cruise operators have noted that while some things are harder to deliver in Southeast Asia, such as decent docking facilities (a challenge that is mostly out of their hands), other things can be easier, such as high service levels. And then there is the biggest difference: the destinations themselves.

“The Mekong, Tonle River and Tonle Lake are a much more important lifeline for the locals than European rivers,” said Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, about the major waterways of Vietnam and Cambodia on which the company sails.

“In Vietnam and Cambodia most of the daily life happens on the water. There are floating markets, floating villages, and fishing is a main source of local nutrition. Many sightseeing excursions are by boat, whereas in Europe, the ships are used as luxurious floating hotels to take you from city to city. On the Mekong more happens on the river than in the towns.”

River cruising in Vietnam vs. Vienna is not surprisingly a vastly difference experience. And despite the economic and infrastructure disparity between Europe and Southeast Asia, river cruise passengers “should not expect anything subpar” in Southeast Asia, Schreiner said.

Bigger staterooms, better service

Angkor Wat, CambodiaIndeed, as river cruise operators such as AmaWaterways continue to improve the product in Southeast Asia, the results mark a consummate change from the region’s earlier generation of ships and the sophisticated vessels being rolled out today.

Schreiner noted that the company’s 124-passenger AmaDara, debuting on the Mekong next year with twin-balcony staterooms and two restaurants instead of just one, “is a testament to how AmaVoyages is able to continuously improve in exotic destinations.”

Another prime example is the Sanctuary Ananda, which Sanctuary Resorts, a company owned by Abercrombie & Kent, is launching next month in Myanmar. The Ananda marks Sanctuary’s first project in Myanmar, and the company is giving ample attention to the hardware.

For one, the suites will range from 291 square feet to a 721-square-foot suite, a marked increase in space compared with many European river vessels. That added spaciousness is possible in Southeast Asia because there are no locks on the waterways and thus fewer restrictions on ship dimensions.

River lines with product in Southeast Asia are also putting a much bigger emphasis on service than they have in the past, providing private butler service for some of the highest category suite guests, for instance.

The spa element is becoming an increasingly important part of the Southeast Asia river cruising experience, as well, and river cruise operators have been steadily amping up their spa service offerings.

“It’s the hospitality factor that will allow us to surpass European river cruise product along the rivers of Asia,” said Haimark’s Markwell.

“It’s the gentle, kind and most of all sincere willingness to serve the guests that blows veteran cruisers among the European waterways out of the water.”