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.
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
Indeed, 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."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.