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Operators offer touch of luxury as well-heeled clients take to the water

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-10-09 07:28
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Luxury cruise operator Francesco Galli Zugaro moved from Peru to Singapore in 2012, keen to tap an increasingly affluent market in the Asia-Pacific region.

The move paid off, with his business, Aqua Expeditions, attracting a small but upscale customer base-a clientele that is keeping the venture afloat at a time when the pandemic has paralyzed the global cruise industry.

"We're in a very high-end, small niche in the (global) cruising industry," Galli Zugaro said, adding that his vessels, which cater to a maximum of 40 passengers, are ideal at a time when social distancing has become the norm.

Aqua Expeditions operates four boats, cruising in waters off eastern Indonesia and also on the Amazon and Mekong rivers in South America and Cambodia and Vietnam respectively. In China, the Mekong is known as the Lancang.

Three of the vessels have been suspended from operations, as their main clients are international tourists.

However, the Aqua Blu continues to sail around the Indonesian islands of Maluku, Bali and Raja Ampat. The vessel caters specifically to Indonesians and expatriates who can afford to spend $7,525 for a weeklong bespoke cruise.

"Our (cruise packages) are appealing because we only cater to small groups and travel to remote destinations far from crowds," Galli Zugaro said.

He added that Aqua Expeditions is still receiving bookings despite travel restrictions being imposed due to the pandemic. All the company's boats are fully booked for the Christmas and New Year holidays and some 40 percent of the slots for next year have also been reserved.

"Our clients are hopeful that they can travel soon," Galli Zugaro said.

The fact that Aqua Expeditions continues to thrive amid travel restrictions is not entirely surprising, as before the pandemic emerged, Asia was the fastest-growing market for cruise tourism.

While the United States and Europe remain the biggest markets for cruise line operators, in recent years, these companies have been targeting Asia's expanding middle class.

The Cruise Lines International Association said passenger capacity in Asia rose to more than 4 million last year, compared with 1.51 million in 2013. The number of cruise ships operating in the region also rose last year to 79, compared with 43 in 2013.

Luxury cruise industry players note that while their clientele cannot go on ocean cruises due to the travel restrictions, they are still keen on packages to regional destinations.

Severine Fallet, country manager for Myanmar with luxury travel company Abercrombie&Kent, said, "We have already seen the pandemic affect the way people are now choosing to travel, where they travel to and who they travel with."

Luxury operators have arguably long provided packages that promote forms of social distancing-whether it is travel by private jets and yachts, staying in villas in remote destinations, or other customized services. As a result, Fallet expects the luxury travel industry to be the first to recover from the pandemic.

She said this is why Abercrombie&Kent launched the "Discover Your Asia" campaign in July, offering travel packages to affluent local and expatriate communities in Myanmar.

One of these packages is a threenight cruise on the Irrawaddy River aboard the Sanctuary Ananda. This custom-built boat can only accommodate 42 guests and sails from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan to Mandalay, the former royal capital in northern Myanmar.

Fallet said customer response to the campaign has been "incredible".

While Myanmar's borders remain closed to international tourists, the first two departures of the Sanctuary Ananda were fully booked and most of the slots for last month were also taken.

"Our first cruises in July coincided with the lifting of the domestic travel ban in Myanmar. Residents (of the capital Yangon) jumped at the chance to leave the city for a short break, and many were eager to experience some luxury as well," Fallet said.

She added that during the day, passengers take excursions to villages and sites along the Irrawaddy. To maintain social distancing, the trips are made by groups of no more than 14.

Fallet said new onboard measures have been introduced to ensure health and safety, including enhanced cleaning procedures and temperature checks for passengers and crew.

Luxury cruises are in line with moves made by Asian governments to promote domestic tourism to help the ailing travel and hospitality industries.

In addition to the Sanctuary Ananda river trip, Fallet said Abercrombie&Kent offers chartered cruises in the Myeik Archipelago-a pristine and diverse group of islands in southern Myanmar.

The company also sells private river cruise packages in Cambodia and Vietnam, which offer domestic tourists in Southeast Asia "a great opportunity to get out and explore their own country in a safe and memorable way" Fallet said.

Keen interest

In August, Thai luxury cruise provider Loy Pela Voyages was banking on well-heeled domestic tourists when it launched the Loy River Song, a vintage teak rice barge converted into a luxury vessel cruising the Chao Phraya River. It sails from Bangkok to the former ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya.

A three-night package for two costs more than $8,000, and passengers can enjoy one of four air-conditioned staterooms fitted out in antique furniture and Thai silk.

Mark O'Sullivan, a general manager at Minor Hotels, a chain based in Thailand that operates Loy Pela Voyages, said,"Being the first overnight luxury cruise vessel linking Bangkok and Ayutthaya, the Loy River Song has seen a lot of interest from guests who are seasoned cruisers."

He said this shows that a company "doesn't have to reinvent the wheel and constantly look for novel products" if it has a well-loved concept that has been improved by considering customers' needs.

In view of the pandemic, the requirements of affluent customers are even more relevant now.

"When it comes to being safer, I believe that the entire luxury travel sector, not just private cruises, is better equipped than most to deal with pandemic-related concerns," O'Sullivan said.

"We have always focused on privacy, safety and personalization, and our expertise in these areas will no doubt help us come out the other side stronger."

He is cautiously optimistic about the sector, noting that luxury travelers will probably resume leisure trips as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. However, these customers are also likely to have an "isolationist mindset".

"This means they will opt for experiences that prioritize privacy and choose remote, nature-centric locations in preference to cities and resorts. Even after travel bans are lifted, the risk of infection will remain high, so social distancing requirements will be the driver for as long as there are health concerns," O'Sullivan said.

He added that companies focusing on individual travelers, rather than groups, will continue to thrive even after the pandemic.

"Extra space and exclusivity, the hallmarks of luxury travel, have now gone mainstream," he said.

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