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20 Apr 2018

BY Abigail Healy

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River cruising in Asia: Looking beyond the Mekong

This month Clia highlighted the attraction and opportunities of Asian river cruising. Abigail Healy looks at options to flag up beyond Vietnam’s popular Mekong

Irrawaddy river, Myanmar
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After the inaugural Clia River Cruise and Destination Forum in Vietnam and its focus on river cruising in Asia, we look at options beyond the Mekong

This month, the inaugural Clia River Cruise and Destination Forum in Vietnam put the attention on river cruising in Asia.


Andy Harmer, director Clia UK and Ireland, says: “Asia is often overlooked as a cruise destination – both in terms of river and ocean itineraries, with the majority of customers still heading to the Caribbean or Mediterranean, or to the rivers of Europe.

 

“However, there are signs that the tide is turning, as Asia is the fastest-growing region for river cruises and is the driving force behind a 15% rise in 2016 in British river cruise passengers sailing outside of Europe.”

 

According to Harmer, cruises on the Mekong are currently the most popular in the region with the highest number of UK passengers, but numbers on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar have more than quadrupled, albeit from a small base, over the past two years.

 

He says this indicates that there is “a real appetite out there for more adventurous and unusual cruise itineraries from British customers” and that travel agents should “move to capitalise on as soon as possible”.

 

Here, we round up options for south-east Asian river cruises beyond the Mekong to tempt your customers to try something new and hopefully convert them to the myriad opportunities available.

 

Irrawaddy, Myanmar

Irrawaddy, Myanmar

Cruising the Irrawaddy is an attractive alternative to the Mekong. Despite the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis (the FCO advises against travel to some areas but in the remainder of the country it says most visits are trouble free), cruise lines say they will continue to support local people by operating cruises in the country.

 

The destination’s growing popularity has been unsurprising given its cultural intrigue with temples, pagodas, monasteries, Buddhist relics and riverside communities that visitors can enjoy.

 

APT has luxury and premium cruises on the Irrawaddy to appeal to clients with different budgets and both can be packaged with a three-night extension to Inle Lake, where guests can meet members of the Padaung tribe.

 

Angela Waite, head of sales and commercial, says: “While Mekong cruising is now quite a mature product, it’s fair to say that river cruising on the Irrawaddy is very much in its infancy.

 

The area remains untouched by tourism and we always reiterate to agents that clients need to be reminded of this fact. Packing accordingly, having a good sense of adventure and being prepared for disembarking on to the river bank are really important points to emphasise when selling this product.”

 

Emerald Waterways is featuring the Irrawaddy for the first time in 2019 following the success of its Mekong river cruises. Angela Sloan, head of sales UK, says the line will be adding three new itineraries along the Irrawaddy each of which will include a nine-night river cruise onboard the Irrawaddy Explorer.

 

Meanwhile on sister line Scenic’s 16-day tour between Yangon and Mandalay, passengers can see the ancient capital of Sagaing to visit a monastic supported school and a quiet nunnery as part of the Scenic Enrich programme.

 

New for 2018 from Pandaw is the Great Irrawaddy Delta Cruise. The itinerary takes guests through a labyrinth of waterways on a round-trip from the capital Rangoon.

 

The line says the vibe in the backwaters here is reminiscent of Kerala, while on the larger channels it can be likened to New Orleans.

 

Book it: Emerald Waterways has the 14-day Irrawaddy Discoverer Cruise from Mandalay to Yangon priced from £4,190pp departing in February 2019. emeraldwaterways.co.uk

Chindwin, Myanmar

Chindwin, Myanmar

The Chindwin is the main tributary of the Irrawaddy and offers picturesque waterways flanked by mountains, forests and unspoilt towns.

 

Renette Hartridge, UK director of sales for Sanctuary Retreats, says: “The two, three, four and seven-night cruises on the Irrawaddy are the best options for first-time visitors to Myanmar while the longer 10 and 11-night Upper Irrawaddy and Chindwin itineraries are best for seasoned Asia travellers in search of off-the-beaten-track experiences.”

 

She adds: “I also recommend the exclusive four-night Monywa cruises between Mandalay and Bagan in August and September, sailing a section of the Chindwin river as well as the Irrawaddy river.”

 

Pandaw’s Chindwin itinerary takes in little-visited ports of call from Monywa such as Phowin Taung, Mingkin, Mawlaik, Sitthaung, Toungdoot and Homalin. It’s also worth noting that Pandaw operates a revised itinerary from Monywa to Kalewa (and vice versa) from December to February.

 

Despite low monsoon water levels, its ultra-low draught ships can continue to sail during these months.

 

Marco Rosa, Pandaw’s vice president of sales and marketing, says: “Our advice to agents selling the more off-the-beaten track river cruises to customers is to target those who have a keen sense of adventure.

 

Pandaw itineraries travel to remote areas and, as a result, the ship’s captain will often have to make changes to the planned itinerary. It’s important that guests have a flexible approach and are happy to embrace the adventurous spirit of our expeditions.”

 

Book it: Sanctuary Retreats has a 10-night cruise on the Chindwin from $2,629pp based on two sharing on an August 11, 2018 departure. sanctuaryretreats.com

Yangtze, China

Yangtze, China

Spanning almost 4,000 miles, the Yangtze is the longest river in the world to flow entirely in one country. Typically a river cruise here will be combined with a land-based stay so your clients can explore varied highlights of the destination and most river cruises incorporate the Three Gorges Dam site, renowned for its natural beauty.

 

Hercules Zeris, head of worldwide at Riviera Travel, says that its new 16-day Grand Tour of China, which includes a four-day Yangtze cruise, is best suited to clients who have “already explored and fallen in love with south-east Asia, but have not yet visited China and want to see all the major sights on one trip”.

 

Collette Worldwide says its most popular river cruise tour globally is The Wonders of China. The itinerary contrasts the dramatic scenery of the Three Gorges and steep cliffs of the Qutang Gorge on a four-night cruise with marvels such as walking the Great Wall, taking in the Terracotta Army in Xian and soaking up the buzz in Shanghai.

 

Sanctuary Retreats offers a chance for guests to try their hands at traditional Chinese crafts and activities with calligraphy masterclasses, dumpling making lessons and the all-important tea ceremony. They can also try Tai Chi, Chinese medicine and wellness treatments onboard.

 

Book it: Riviera Travel’s 16-day Grand Tour of China starts from £2,699pp based on two sharing and departing March 19, 2019. Price includes flights, hotel accommodation and the four-day cruise. rivieratravel.co.uk

Red River, Vietnam

Red River, Vietnam

The Mekong in the south of Vietnam may be the country’s main draw card but Pandaw’s Rosa points out that the Red River paired with Halong Bay can be a good option in the north and offers clients access to otherwise unreachable parts of the river.


Rosa says: “From Halong Bay guests will discover mountain villages and tribal areas as they sail deep into highland Vietnam, heading as far as is physically possible up the Song Red river and then down the little known Da or Black river.”


It can also be a useful option for clients looking to travel during the early summer. “The best period for an Asia river cruise is September to March,” says Rosa.

 

“There is less product to offer clients in the spring and summer season, in particular in May and June. However, our Halong Bay and Red River itinerary is a spectacular option if a client is looking to travel in those months.”

 

Book it: Pandaw has a 10-night cruise from $2,925pp, based on two sharing. pandaw.com

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