Buzz versus basics

Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River 
Paul Strachan, who started taking passengers up and down Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River exactly 20 years ago, is still building ships much in the same way they were constructed back then.

After interviewing Strachan, the founder of Pandaw River Expeditions, this week (look for the story in Monday’s Travel Weekly), it occurred to me that he is one of the few entrepreneurs in the constantly evolving river cruising segment that has opted for simplicity over swimming pools and sprawling suites.

There was a time when Viking Chairman Tor Hagen was equally skeptical about amenities. Balconies? Nope, Hagen used to say. A spa on board? Not worth the space, he would claim.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

Obviously Hagen has changed his tune on balconies, having since rolled out dozens of newbuilds with a variety of balcony configurations. And he isn’t alone. The race to have more and splashier amenities onboard river cruise vessels has heated up in step with the competition within the category.

And it’s true, sexy new amenities look good in brochures. I don’t know how many times river cruise executives have told me that not that many passengers actually use their balconies, but that balconies sell cabins.

But I have to say, as a member of the media who covers river cruising, I’m often just as guilty as those amenity-loving brochure oglers. In an attempt to differentiate one river cruise ship from the next or to find a new angle to write about, I often inadvertently applaud new and innovative onboard features whether or not they are actually all that useful.

Which isn’t to say that all the new amenities aren’t useful. I have personally taken advantage of them plenty, whether it’s taking a dip in an onboard swimming pool or bringing my laptop out onto my stateroom balcony while I write or opting for a more casual lunch in the alternative dining venue.

A lot of these new amenities are about buzz, right? Buzz is fun. Buzz keeps things interesting, and for river cruise lines and travel sellers, it can attract the attention of new and repeat passengers. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with buzz — it actually serves an important purpose.

But perhaps in all the buzz, fun and hoopla surrounding river cruising, we kind of forgot why river cruising was so great to begin with. That is what Strachan inadvertently reminded me of when he talked about his practical approach to river cruising, about building simple ships that are meant to sail into ever-more exotic river destinations. Perhaps what’s so amazing about river cruising has very little to do with onboard cinemas and balconies and swimming pools. Maybe what’s so great about it is that original, simple concept of gliding down the river, stopping in curious cities along the way, discovering sights both known and unknown, and meeting interesting travel companions onboard in between sips of wine and bites of local cuisine.

I’m not sure how well that message sells, but it’s a good one to remember every once in awhile.