Hello Alex, you have just finished up a 6 year tenure as the General Manager with Pandaw River Expeditions who operate 13 ships in Asia, along the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. As the GM of the largest luxury river cruise company in the region please share with us your top 3 must do activities along both rivers.
ALEX: Thanks Tim, I think cruising up the Mekong to see the sweet water river dolphins at Kratie, crossing the Tonlé Sap Lake to Siem Reap and cruising up the Chindwin River are still authentic experiences, allowing visitors to step back in time and offered by relatively few river cruise lines. Of course all visitors “must see” Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Pagan in Myanmar.
Tim: Avalon Waterways are handing back their leased vessel to Pandaw at the end of the year and have built their own ship, yet Viking management insist that leasing a ship from Pandaw makes much better financial sense. Who’s right?
Alex: If committing to the long-term it makes sense, considering financial aspects, to invest in your own vessel. The political situation in Cambodia and Vietnam seems pretty stable and foreign investment is secured. However, setting up and running the onboard – and ground operation is still very different and much more challenging than operators are used to in Europe. Also costs per berth are higher, if operating only one vessel – boats are smaller with less cabins due to navigational challenges here. Investing into the vessel, but contracting a local operator perhaps is the best compromise of the two.
Tim: There are a great number of opinions as to the best time to take a cruise and whether up or down stream is best, please share your opinion with us.
Alex: For most itineraries, the downstream is exact the same as the upstream cruise; downstream can mean on the wild rivers more speed and less cruising at night. Best time of the year for Southeast Asia is, in my opinion July – September. Considered rain season, but on average only 30 minutes a day – it is a part of the fun to see the roads flooded; but less humid, less heat, more greenery compared to the rest of the year and most operators and hotels offering low season rates.
Tim: The US Government recently announced their decision to extend sanctions against the Myanmar government, does this impact the river cruise companies operating on the Irrawady?
Alex: Current sanctions on Myanmar are not effecting river cruising. The sanctions are focused on certain financial transactions, importing certain goods into the US and making business with members of the former junta. Tourism and river cruising is booming and capacities are on their limits in Myanmar.
Tim: What are the biggest challenges for luxury cruise operators in Myanmar?
Alex: Myanmar has just opened up a few years back and is trying to make up for it at the speed of light. The biggest challenge is the lack of infrastructure such as missing, unreliable or overpriced supplies and a missing education/vocational training. Additionally, the Irrawaddy and Chindwin are still wild rivers with navigational challenges, high-and low water levels, shallow parts of the rivers, and during certain periods the navigable channel is changing daily.
Tim: Just this year we will see new ships from Sanctuary, Avalon, Aqua Expeditions and Haimark, all claim to be setting a new standard of luxury, two questions, will this create capacity over supply at the upper end of the market, and secondly will the rivers become clogged with ships and over stretch the available dock space and availability of high standard local service staff?
Alex: The next years will answer your question Tim, will it be like Europe where 100’s of boats cruise long seasons with high occupancy or become like the Nile river, where many boats are abandoned, sunk in the mud left to rot. The price battle there wasn’t for the good – it lowered service standards and some operators didn’t survive.
The standard itineraries, Saigon to Siem Reap and between Mandalay and Pagan are becoming different products than few years back: away from expedition cruising, to a more homogenised trip. I think this will lead to higher, more consistant service standards. The Mekong has many well trained Cambodian staff, Myanmar however has some catching up to do in this area.
Away from the standard routes, and away from the masses, there is still a lot to discover!
Tim: What has the cruise industry done to tackle the visa application process?
Alex: The industry has been pushing for many years, not only the cruise operators, but the DMC’s and travel agents. While Cambodia has an easy “Visa on arrival” policy for most nationalities, Vietnam remains strict and not always easy in dealing with. Myanmar is work under progress and they are changing their VISA policy frequently (sometime without prior notice) – it is highly recommended to arrange for a Myanmar visa prior to departure.
Tim: Pandaw leases some ships to Viking and Avalon Waterways, who incorporate the cruise as part of a longer country group tour, yet the Pandaw run vessels are anti groups and pro independent travellers. Which strategy do you feel works best for the market?
Alex: These are two different products, serving different travellers. It is not so much related to countries or demographics, however for American, it makes travelling in a group much more economical. Mostly independent travellers put their own journey together, including land tours, beach visits, city-tours, etc before and after and the cruise, according to their very own interests. For the group traveler everything is taken care of by experienced operators, hassle free. Think of it as a set menu versus À la carte, I think the market exists for both types of travellers.
Tim: A fantasy question now, if money was no object what kind of vessel would you personally put into the marketplace.
Alex: I think all markets are catered for; from solid three star vessels, to the very high end, we are all very curious seeing the new builds. Some with traditional décor, others rather contemporary or Westernised.
If I’m asked to recommend a trip however, charter a whole boat with a group of family or friends, this can be done with as few as 20 people on one of the smaller boats and cruise up the rivers without a fixed itinerary. Keep looking for interesting places and ask the skipper to stop, meet the locals and experience their unspoiled hospitality. Now that’s a trip of a lifetime.
Tim: Great insights Alex, thank you for your time and all the best with your next venture!