Cruise Operator in Mekong River

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MEKONG CRUISE

 

       

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There’s a war on the Mekong, and it ain’t very nice.
Pandaw Cruises began in Burma in 1995 and expanded operations to Vietnam in 2003. The R.V. Mekong Pandaw pioneered the Mekong cruise concept, grew the brand and reaped the not-inconsiderable rewards, It was a brilliant idea; a week spent sailing up the Mekong from Saigon to Siem Reap on an old-time river freighter. Intriguing, adventurous – in a safe kind of way – perfect for the cardigans. It didn’t take long to catch on. A year later R.V. Tonle Pandaw joined the fleet and together the two leap-frogged their way to a growing profit for the next five years.
Pandaw was running the river unchallenged. Prices crept up, occupancy climbed – soon you couldn’t get a berth. Each ship has about thirty cabins so, bar the odd tragic single, the fleet was running with a capacity of around one hundred and twenty intrepid cruisers a week. Each ship did one cruise every seven days – up river or down. In high season every cruise was full.
In early 2009 they added a third, mystery ship; RV Indochina Pandaw – this one reserved entirely for the kangaroo trade. Sold exclusively within the Australian travel market, boat-loads of cruisers are flown in and out secretly each week – a weekly Pand-awful of Aussies, a relentless pandemic of ‘noice’. Every cruise is full.
The aesthetic of the Pandaw fleet hasn’t changed in fifty years; all that dark wood; those wooden walls, wooden floors, wooden ceilings, the wooden window frames, those dark wooden bathrooms, wooden tables, wooden chairs, wooden toiler seat, wooden shower, wooden lamp, wooden food. There is always the tang of boarding school about a Pandaw – it’s a very brown experience; the basics clad in romance, nothing more.




But it was perfect branding; a touch of the Raj, a bit of George Orwell, a bit of Hogwarts thrown in; Singapore Slings on the top deck, the muddy romance of low seas, high jinks for the old colonials

Call it an ‘adventure’ cruise and you could get away with almost anything. Surround yourself with indemnities and clauses, foreign courts and company law, you could practically kill the punters and you were covered. It was an intrepid, rather British thing to do. Getting hoist on a sandbank, having to abandon ship, deal with cyclone, low-water or high was all part of the jolly hockey sticks appeal of it all, an ersatz expedition into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t take the bean counters long to realize that if someone offered something different, a more up-market brand catering to the Euro-market, great riches would be theirs. If you build it, they will come. They did and they did.

In late September 2009 R.V. La Marguerite arrived on the scene – a bigger ship with forty-six cabins; a maximum ninety-two passengers, a different Euro-aesthetic aiming at a new market. An offshoot of Avalon Cruises, one of the major players in the European River Cruise market and connected to everyone everywhere, they were geared to adventurous, cashed-up Europeans intent on ‘The Authentic Mekong Experience’ with maximum Euro river-cruise style. .

A month later, Pandaw and Uniworld finally set sail. Bedeviled with shonky internet sites (haha), cancelled cruises, outrage in internet chat rooms, dire warnings of scam and corruption, the little player managed to get her head above water and blitzed the opposition. Here’s a picture of the C.E.O.:



There’s no real reason to put a picture of Thomas Peters in here. I never did meet him but there’s something about the picture I like. It says a lot about the company. Pandaw and Uniworld is a smaller operation; just fifty-six clients – a more personal, boutique vessel. Small is beautiful with river-cruises – the stops are easier, the tours less frantic, the ambience much more relaxed on board. This time someone got the aesthetic right.

 



Suddenly Pandaw was looking kinda old. Their ‘ye olde river-boat’ brand, beloved of geriatric British Pandodderers, was looking dated and tired. All that dark wood, those dingy cabins with their tiddly single beds and dim lights, those dark blue bedspreads, that boarding school cuisine was looking very nineteen nineties. Pandaw appealed to a certain type of British tourist, a certain type of Australian and the odd New Zealander. While they had the market sewn up they attracted the Americans, Germans and French intrepid enough to brave such an Anglo-phile endeavor.


How big is the Mekong cruise industry? How long is a piece of string? Nobody knows – the industry grows like Topsy. Once the newcomers arrived with their Euro-Asian decor, luxury double-beds and private balconies, the market split – and expanded. Both recorded significant custom. The profits were instantaneous. Watch out Pandaw, there’s a new kid in town.


After only nine months in the market, Pandaw and Uniworld is booked solid for the next twelve months, their second vessel; R.V. RiverSaigon scheduled for her maiden voyage in early 2011. That’s a considerable achievement for the little player. La Marguerite is exactly the same. In March 2011 a second vessel, Ama Lotus in their fleet begins cruising up and down the Mekong. Then Pandaw is launching a fourth vessel. In only two years, the number of Luxury River Cruisers on the Mekong will have increased from two to eight, the number of double cabins available each week from sixty to five-hundred plus. That’s an increase in passenger numbers of eight hundred percent.
So there’s a war on the Mekong and it ain’t very nice. Three river cruise companies are vying for the tourist buck – and there are a lot of tourists and lot of bucks. Highly competent Cambodian and Vietnamese staff are very happy to be paid third-world wages while their passengers pay first-world prices and leave big fat first-world tips. Everybody makes money; the crews can double their wages on tips every season. The shore operations, the tourist attractions, the boatmen, the bus-drivers, the orphanages, the villages et al can see the future – an eight-fold increase in their business delivered daily to their door.
Every one is positioning, making allies, staking territory – indeed, in the dash for cash, as far as the Mekong tourist industry is concerned, the more the merrier – as long as it’s more of the same.

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