Published online by Recommend.com | By Paloma Villaverde de Rico
Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): What do you think is the U.S. market’s fascination with Southeast Asia?
Ryan Droegemueller (RD): Traveling to and through Southeast Asia is so different than traveling to Europe or Australia or other western destinations. While some travelers have some idea of what to expect, others experience a great sense of the unknown and unfamiliar when they arrive. That feeling is, however, quickly replaced by excitement. The experience far exceeds what they thought it would be. And when looking at Myanmar, the simple fact that the borders were closed for so long, creates a unique sense of intrigue. I like to think of it as “the Cuba of Asia.”
PVR: Why build two new all-suite ships? Why is it important to keep an intimate feel on these ships that sail Southeast Asia rivers?
RD: Avalon customers have a certain level of expectation based on the features offered on our European fleet. Our current ship (the Avalon Angkor), while great, is lacking a few key elements that will really round out the onboard experience. This includes a spa treatment room, gym, public bathroom and an air-conditioned Panorama Lounge, offering relief from the heat, when needed, while not losing the great views of the passing scenery.
On our Suite Ships, travelers will enjoy Panorama Suites (which are 43 percent larger (245 sq. ft.) than on our current ship) with large, modern bathrooms, sitting area and huge 14-ft.-wide, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows that open wide to provide our travelers unobstructed views and signature Open Air Balconies found on our European Suite Ships. And, while these changes will improve the onboard experience, the decor on the ship will retain the charm of Southeast Asia through use of natural woods, fabrics and local artwork.
Our goal is to deliver the best experience on both the Mekong and the Irrawaddy. To do so, we feel having a small ship is necessary. That is why each of our ships has only 18 suites. When sailing on the Mekong and especially the Irrawaddy, we visit many small villages. When visiting these villages, you don¹t want to overwhelm the locals with 60 to 100 people or more. Instead, our exclusive all-suite ships allow us to enjoy fascinating interactions with the locals while not interrupting daily life throughout the village.
The Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers have not been massively dredged so water levels and the draft of the ship play a big role in where you can and can¹t go. Our ships allow us to sail where others can¹t and offer more unique experiences. We are, for instance, the only cruise line sailing all the way to/from Ho Chi Minh City on the Mekong and the only group to explore the scenic and untouched Upper Irrawaddy year-round. The size also ensures we can deliver the best onboard service to our customers with the highest crew to customer ratio of 1:1.5. So not only does the size of the ship offer an intimate feel which adds to the overall experience, it has several practical purposes.
PVR: It’s all in the details, right? So what are some of the “not so obvious” things that make both the Mekong and Irrawaddy itineraries unique experiences?
RD: There are so many things! Here are a few:
1. First and foremost, these trips and excursions are about the people. On the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, our customers encounter some of the sweetest and friendliest people they have ever met. It shocks many of our travelers to see how happy the locals are with, in many cases, very little when it comes to material possessions. It really offers each of us great perspective on why we should appreciate the things we have back home. This doesn’t just apply to the locals we encounter on our excursions, but it extends to the ships’ crew. As previously mentioned, service is key and the crew makes a huge impact on each and every traveler. With a small group, the crew members are able to remember our customers’ names and they tend to form strong bonds. We actually have people cry when they leave the ship because they will miss the crew.
2. Our ships. The size (which really adds another dimension to the experience), but also the layout, which we have put a great deal of thought into. There are many small details our customers will appreciate but one that stands out is that we designed our ships so that the indoor and outdoor lounges are at the front of the ship, offering our customers the best panoramic views. Many others have their lounges at the back of the ships. Travelers want to see what is coming, not what they already passed.
3. The diversity of sightseeing and life along the rivers. From cities and temples (Angkor and Bagan are some of the most spectacular in the world) to interactions with locals including visiting a local farmer’s home, giving alms (food offerings) to monks and visiting children in a local school. Each day offers a new adventure!
4. Pace. Morning and afternoon excursions generally last 2 to 2.5 hours so customers see a great deal but at a relaxed pace. Of course, there are also a few free mornings/afternoons on the ship.
PVR: Which demographic is Avalon marketing these two itineraries to?
RD: We feel that these cruises are great for any adventurous traveler who likes exotic destinations and for river cruisers who have sailed in Europe and are looking for something new. The only people these itineraries are not ideal for are those with mobility issues as there is a fair amount of walking on uneven surfaces and up/down stairs, especially at the temples in Angkor and Bagan.
PVR: Where do you see Southeast Asia in five years in terms of tourism?
RD: Obviously, much depends on things happening elsewhere in the world but if all is well, I see continued growth for the region and better access from the U.S. directly to places like Siem Reap, Cambodia and Yangon, Myanmar. This growth will certainly cause some challenges such as how to retain the authenticity of experiences and how best to protect the ancient sites in the region. For example, I could see them placing a limit on the number of visitors allowed in the Angkor temple complex on a given day. Additionally, in Myanmar, my hope is that the growth of tourism puts an international spotlight on the country and its people. I think this is one of the best ways to minimize any possibility of the government reversing track on its path to a more peaceful/democratic style of rule.
PVR: What does Avalon/Globus see as the next “wow, I didn’t see that one coming” destination—the one travel agents should be keeping a close eye on?
RD: We still consider the Mekong and Irrawaddy the next “wow” destinations. In part, because they are still so unexplored and virtually untouched.