- From Melanesian rituals to traditional crafts in Vietnam, expedition cruises allow visitors to get closer to local culture than is possible on big liners
- The cruises bring revenue to tribal communities, and experts say this travel trend will grow as more savvy tourists crave far-flung experiences
With a gentle breeze on its stern, our tough little Zodiac inflatable boat motors gently up to a deserted beach. Massive kapok trees draped in dense creeping vines fringe the rough coral sands, which are split by a glistening stream from the jungle beyond. But behind the foliage a surprise awaits.
As our rubber bow kisses the shore, the tranquillity is shattered by a blood-curdling chorus of screams and yelps.
As if disgorged by the jungle itself, an excited band of vine-clad men and boys brandishing spears and clubs surrounds our tiny vessel, weapons held high.
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We’re not in danger; this is part of a ritual inhabitants of Loh Island, in the remote Torres Islands of the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, perform before welcoming us with broad smiles, handshakes and fresh green coconuts.
Spirited Melanesian greetings like this are common as we make landfall on the far-flung islands bordering the Bismarck, Solomon and Coral Seas from our cruise company Heritage Expedition’s purpose-built 140-passenger expedition yacht Heritage Adventurer.
At each island, instead of gaudy tourist traps and well-worn shore excursions, we enjoy a cultural exchange wherein the locals perform traditional dances and songs and prepare food, and we are introduced to mystic practices first described by wayfaring anthropologists more than a century ago. We respond with clumsy renditions of our own national anthems.
Similarly, the river cruise operators plying the waterways of Southeast Asia offer their guests a traditional experience and the co-mingling of cultures.
Politics and Covid-19 have halted voyages along the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers in Myanmar and the Yangtze in China for now, leaving operators that sail through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to run with the opportunity.
Intimate cruises along the Upper Mekong between the Thai city of Chiang Rai and the Laotian capital, Vientiane – via the Unesco World Heritage-listed town of Luang Prabang – have been growing in popularity since tour company Mekong River Cruises launched long-distance (typically overnight) river cruises in 2005.
Cruise company Pandaw began plying this route in 2015, and another company, Heritage Line, is due to launch its newest vessel, Anouvong, on the stretch later this year.
More multiday itineraries are being developed by Pandaw and Heritage Line in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, where many visitors currently settle for rushed day cruises.
The operators are coupling these itineraries with sailings along the Red River, in northern Vietnam, and to the relatively unknown Lan Ha Bay, to the south of Halong Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Adventure or expedition cruising, with its smaller, more nimble vessels, is ideal for negotiating narrow, shallow channels, reefs and shoals, and delivering 100 passengers or less directly to remote settlements.
The cruises bring much needed economic activity to these communities – be they in Melanesia or Southeast Asia – which can encourage the local inhabitants to maintain their traditional lifestyles, and prevent in particular the young men from having to seek work elsewhere.
Little infrastructure is required to accommodate shallow-draught ships, which bring with them their own food and accommodation.
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Villagers can then concentrate on providing cultural attractions and selling traditional handicrafts rather than installing expensive wharves and jetties that could go unused for months on end.
Cambodia, with its plethora of exquisite architecture and Unesco World Heritage temples, is in the box seat for such tourism, with river travel attractive for visitors who would prefer not to have to contend with chaotic traffic and the inconvenience of checking in and out of hotels every day.
Heritage Line’s Jahan is a retro vessel with a steampunk-meets-British-Raj vibe. The boat entered service 10 years ago, taking 50 or so guests at a time across Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake and over the border into Vietnam’s vast Mekong Delta.
Visitors on these trips are exposed to centuries-old industries across the fertile floodplain of the “mother of water” – as the Mekong can be roughly translated.
It’s delightfully anachronistic to sit, gin and tonic in hand, on Jahan’s upper deck while the panorama of riverine activity drifts serenely past – until the dinner gong summons us downstairs to eat.
Away from continental Asia, operators expect to see Indonesia, the Philippines and Micronesia become more popular among expedition cruise tourists with a taste for refined travel.
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“Expedition cruise companies are picking up where they left off just before Covid struck,” says Justin Friend, founder of Austronesian Expeditions.
“Word has been slowly getting out from niche operators and TV documentaries and these companies are responding to customer demand to go and see these places.
Like Antarctica 20 years ago, impetus builds – snowballs – and the cruise companies can’t ignore it.
“The Komodo dragons in Indonesia, the whale sharks of West Papua and the Philippines, the magnificent coral reefs all through the Coral Triangle (a coral-rich area of ocean around the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor) and spectacles like the horseback spear fighting in Sumba, make for irresistible travel alternatives when people are getting sick of the same old stuff.”
Mick Fogg, a director of expeditions and destination development at cruise company Ponant, says of Micronesia: “Taking a luxury small ship expedition through the area is the ideal way to discover the various cultures and pristine underwater worlds that the region has become famous for.
“The 2,000 islands that make up the region of Micronesia are among some of the remotest in the tropics. Many can be challenging to visit unless you are on board a boutique small expedition vessel.”
In the South Pacific, heavy investment by Carnival and other large cruise lines in Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand and Tahiti is likely to result in increased adventure cruise options in those waters, as smaller operators also take advantage of the new infrastructure.
Aranui operates a 256-passenger and freight vessel called the Aranui 5 that delivers cargo to Polynesian islands while simultaneously offering luxurious cruises.
This year, the operation, based in Papeete, French Polynesia, is expanding its reach to make stops at Pitcairn Island as well as the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Gambier Islands.
As tourists reassess their priorities in a post-pandemic world, more far-flung options could become increasingly sought after.
Market data company Statista predicts “the global passenger capacity of expedition cruises is expected to reach over 578,000 passengers by 2027, more than double the capacity of 2018”.
Watch this space.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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