Gliding through the water almost soundlessly, the MS AmaLotus docked for only its second time in Phnom Penh last week. An elderly man clad in Speedo swimming trunks lounged next to the boat’s on-board swimming pool. Another sipped a glass of whiskey as he watched the city approach from his private balcony.
At 92 meters in length and capable of holding 124 passengers, the AmaLotus is the latest cruise ship to start transporting tourists between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.
But this is no ordinary vessel. Unlike the more traditional boats that have plied the waters over the past decade, the AmaLotus comes complete with lavish extras like spa treatments, a gym and a swimming pool. For those willing to pay in excess of $4,000 for a seven-night cruise, suites as big as 54 square meters are available and come with two private balconies as well as a spacious living room.
“For us, it’s an upscale market. I want to always have the number one ship on the market,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, a river cruise operator based in California that has a 50 percent stake in the AmaLotus along with Indochina Sails, a Vietnamese cruising company.
As Cambodia’s tourism industry opens up – tourist arrivals have increased from one million people in 2004 to more than 2.5 million in 2010 – the river cruise industry in Cambodia is growing at a fast clip as the baby boom generations in the US, Europe and Australia enter retirement.
And it doesn’t come cheap. Prices on the AmaLotus start at $1,599 per person for a seven-night cruise in the low season, and reach up to $4,000 for a top-of-the-range suite during the high season.
AmaWaterways is not the only company looking to tap into the river cruise market here.
Heritage Line, a cruise company based in Ho Chi Minh City that entered the market in 2008 with cruises between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City, will launch a 70-meter-long liner capable of transporting 52 passengers on Oct 29.
Customers willing to pay $8,129 for a seven-night cruise can expect butler service and a private candlelight dinner on the ship’s top-deck observatory. For the rest, panoramic views from a 50-square-meter library and lounge, and a sun deck equipped with swimming pool and Jacuzzi are on offer.
Heritage Line is also building a third ship to be chartered by Viking River Cruises, a cruising company from California. The 94-meter long vessel will be capable of holding 124 passengers and is scheduled to launch in January 2013. Heritage Line already operates the Jayavarman, which launched in 2008 and carries 54 passengers.
“For that sort of money we should offer something luxurious and not the experience only,” said Thomas Peter, managing director of Heritage Line. “We want to occupy that niche segment.”
River cruise companies started here in 2002 with Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong, a company founded by Terre Voyages, a Paris-based travel company. The idea was to bring visitors to Cambodia’s celebrated temples in Siem Reap while also showing them parts of the countryside that most Western travelers have never set foot.
Compagnie Fluviale started out with a 10-cabin boat called Toum Tiou, the title of a traditional tragic Khmer love story. Fully paneled in wood but without the luxurious services that come with the AmaLotus and Jahan, the Toum Tiou targets travelers looking to travel on a smaller vessel that brings passengers closer to nature. Still, a seven night cruise between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City starts at $2,656 per person.
While river cruises still represent only a fraction of the global cruise industry, they are the fastest growing segment of the market, said Bob Sharak, executive vice president of marketing for the Cruise Lines International Association, a cruising industry trade group.
“This is, in part, because of the growing number of travelers who have already taken a cruise and are looking for new cruise experiences but also because the river cruise companies have invested in new ships, developed new itineraries in Europe and elsewhere, including Asia,” he said.
With competition among cruising companies already fierce on rivers like the Volga, the Nile and the Danube, the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers are starting to attract more interest from companies abroad.
“It’s a growing market, getting more and more attention,” said Sibylle Rotzler, project manager at Exotissimo, a luxury travel agency with offices across Southeast Asia. “For certain clientele this is really appealing. You get to see Cambodia and Vietnam from a perspective that you don’t see when you travel over land.”
Ms Rotzler said that cruise trips running between Cambodia and Vietnam are all fully booked at least two months in advance. “There is still room for more boats,” she said. “It’s not oversaturated by far and demand still exceeds the supply.”
Still, operating in one of the world’s poorest countries on pristine waters hardly comes without its challenges and responsibilities.
Cruise ships can only reach Siem Reap between September and January, when waters are high enough. After January, water levels on the Tonle Sap lake are too low.
To continue doing business during the dry season most companies stop on the Tonle Sap river in Kompong Chhnang province and transport passengers by bus the remaining distance to Siem Reap.
There are also environmental concerns. Environmentalists say boats running on diesel engines pollute freshwater lakes like the Tonle Sap, which is believed to provide up to 70 percent of Cambodia’s total protein intake with its fish.
“Diesel fuel is not as environmentally harmful as bunker fuel; however, the combustion of diesel fuel still results in smog precursors…and particulate matter emissions that cause premature deaths and respiratory illness,” said John Kaltenstein, marine program manager for Friends of the Earth, in an e-mail.
The release of nitrogen oxides – produced when burning diesel fuel – can also lead to acidification in both waters and soils. Cruise companies say that they are looking for ways to become more environmentally conscious.
Naidah Yazdani, general manager at Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong, said his company was installing more energy efficient engines, power generators and air-conditioning units to cut down on fuel consumption.
“We’ve even looked into making the boat fully solar powered, but it’s just not possible. We don’t have the technology available at this time,” he said. “We understand our responsibilities and certainly in the future we’ll be monitoring technological advances.”
Heritage Line and AmaWaterways are also looking to invest in cleaner engines, though they admit that there is still a long way to go until standards reach those being enacted in Europe.
“We’re still way behind developments on the European rivers due to engineers not being able to think that far,” said Mr Peter of Heritage Line.
“Most of our boats are still diesel guzzlers.”
All three companies also treat their sewage before releasing it into the water.
Mr Kaltenstein said that transitioning to new engines was a positive move, but that not investing in renewable technologies was a mistake.
“I’d say that not investing in renewable energy is a lost opportunity, especially as these technologies are readily available,” he said.
For example, Solar Sailor Holdings, a company based in Sydney, is able to fit river cruise boats with solar panels to cut down on fuel consumption.
“The return on investment could be made back in fuel savings in two or three years depending on use,” said Robert Dane, CEO at Solar Sailor. “Such solar hybrid installations make for less noise, less vibration, less fumes, less greenhouse gases and less fossil fuel use.”
Another challenge for cruise companies is ensuring that the money generated from cruises also reaches the local population.
“That is one of the hard parts. Making sure that tourists arriving in Cambodia, that the money they spend works its way down,” said Jimmy Murphy, chairman of AmaWaterways.
The AmaLotus has a total of 57 people working onboard from Europe, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Ten of them are from Cambodia and work in the kitchen and restaurant. Restaurant staff earn an average of $250 per month, and tips can often double their salaries. AmaWaterways has also donated funds to Orphans and Disabled Arts, a local NGO, to build a school in Siem Reap.
Still, as boats become more luxurious, hiring locals with the required experience could become difficult.
Staff hired to work on Heritage Line’s new boat, the Jahan, are required to have a minimum of three years experience working at a five-star hotel. “We have to be more careful as it is another service standard,” Mr Peter said.
Nicolas Dewhurst, a 71-year-old former teacher from England, is exactly the sort of client fueling the growing industry of river cruising in the region.
He retired five years ago from a teaching job in Australia where he moved in 1975 from England, and his seven-night trip onboard the AmaLotus was his first such holiday.
“It’s been fantastic. No complaints whatsoever,” he said walking down the gangplank on a visit to Phnom Penh. “If people come here they’ve got to see other things besides temples, because temples is only one part.”
With many more potential customers like Mr Dewhurst out there, Cambodia’s river cruise industry is poised for even more growth.
“The type of customers you find on here are quite interested in learning things. They haven’t come on this trip to lie on their back in the sun,” said Geoff McGeary, the owner of APT Group, an Australian travel company that has a share in AmaWaterways. “They’re out to see things and learn things while they still can.”