Why ultra-luxury small ship cruising continues to grow in popularity.
Cruising is one of the fastest growing sectors in tourism and ships are getting bigger and bigger every year. Allure of the Seas by Royal Caribbean holds the current record with a maximum capacity of 6,296 passengers. One reason for this growth is that the all-inclusive nature of cruising makes it popular as a low-cost holiday. However, at the other end of the spectrum, small ship “ultra-luxury” cruising has shown an even higher rate of growth, despite these ships charging upwards of $1,000USD per person per day. So why spend so much for this type of cruise? We ask Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO and Founder of Aqua Expeditions, who is currently building the boutique Aqua Mekong which will become the most luxurious ship on the Mekong.
It is undeniable that a luxury river cruise with a maximum of just 40 passengers is a significantly different experience than joining 6,295 other guests on an ocean cruise. Smaller boats can access areas that large cruise liners cannot. Francesco told us “We offer an experience like no other ship on the Mekong”. Cruising down the Mekong River past local villages and landscapes is an intimate experience. The floor to ceiling windows in each cabin on the Aqua Mekong give travellers a close up perspective on the regions they pass through, any time of day. Francesco continues “Guests are able to get up close and personal access to life on the river as we are the only ship with private skiffs on board. Because of the exclusive nature of our excursions with our very knowledgeable guides, guests are able to have personal interactions with locals, village monks and convent caretakers to learn about the rich history, culture and influences surrounding the river.” Travellers these days are looking for an authentic experience that really reveals their destination, and they are willing to pay more to get it. This is one reason that river cruising has become so popular.
Aqua Mekong Cruise (artist impression)
The type of customers looking at ultra-luxury cruising have very high expectations. They are accustomed to staying in five-star hotels and so luxury cruises need to carefully design their ships to maximise the space, which is inevitably limited. Francesco reveals that the cabins on the Aqua Mekong are one of the most luxurious aspects of the ship “The design of the cabins is spectacular and spacious, including elegant bathrooms with double sinks and a rain shower.” Aqua Mekong suites are in fact the largest on the Mekong at 30 square metres (322 square feet) and luxury inclusions like a king size bed make it feel like a five-star boutique hotel.
Aqua Mekong Design Suite with balcony (artist impression)
One challenge is squeezing in the facilities travellers expect, such as a gym, spa and pool. On the Aqua Mekong “the top deck offers an outdoor sun deck, fully air-conditioned observation deck with a private screening room and a fully equipped exercise room. The forward facing plunge pool is next to a shaded outdoor bar.” Francesco tells us.
Aqua Mekong Lounge (artist impression)
While small ship cruise facilities are generally smaller than hotels - for example a plunge pool instead of a full size hotel pool, slipping into the plunge pool watching the sun set over the Mekong beats the largest of hotel pools any day.
Like any five-star hotel, service on these boats is of the utmost importance. Francesco notes “Our guide-to-guest ratio is 1-1, so guests get personalized attention on board.” If not all cabins are occupied the ratio is even higher. But it isn’t just the number of staff that makes a difference, it is the quality. On Aqua’s Amazon cruises it is the local naturalist guides that are most highly regarded by travellers and are often cited as the highlight of the trip. A guide that is showing you through their home region is the type of personal experience that justifies the price tags to many.
When holidaying on land, luxury travellers often have a choice of fine-dining establishments to choose from and cuisine is a highlight of many trips. While giant ocean liners deal with the hurdles of trying to feed many thousands of people almost all at once, the challenges on boutique luxury cruises are how to provide top-class cuisine with enough variety to travellers that expect a gourmet experience day after day, night after night. “No other ship offers a culinary experience like we do, with David Thompson as our executive chef, incorporating culinary traditions of the Mekong River cultures with the freshest local ingredients” states Francesco. David Thompson has an impressive pedigree in producing outstanding Asian food.
Cambodian cuisine using fresh local produce (artist impression)
David was regarded as one of Australia’s top chefs following his opening of Sydney’s Darley Street Thai and his continued success with Sailors’ Thai in Sydney’s The Rocks, which opened in 1995. He later moved to London operating the Michelin-starred Nahm and now runs Nahm Bangkok recognised in 2012 and 2013 among the 'World's 50 Best Restaurants' by Restaurant Magazine UK. He has been named the number one chef in Asia and number 13 in the World by Diner’s Club. Meals on the Aqua Mekong are served in the dining room, but private dining outside is arranged for small parties.
Aqua Mekong Dining room (artist impression)
There is sometimes a misconception that luxury travel and sustainable travel don’t mix, when in actual fact it is often the most luxurious products that are making the biggest difference. This may not be the motivating factor for many travellers, but it is often one consideration. When the company you travel with is aware of its impact on the environment and communities it travels in, it is a sure sign they will be more connected to the places it travels.
In most cases people are willing to pay for small ship ultra-luxury cruises because they can. And if you can afford it, do it. You get an intimate and authentic experience without giving up on convenience or luxury. It really is worth it.
Insider Journeys has a comprehensive range of Asia River Cruising in Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos, Burma, China and India. The Aqua Mekong sails its maiden voyage in September 2014.