Cruise tourism has been seeing a steady growth in demand all over the world. In Malaysia, agencies that offer cruise packages have reportedly been getting a lot of enquiries on international cruises ever since most of the pandemic travel restrictions were lifted about one year ago.
Cruise lines were also said to have done particularly well during major travel fairs like the Matta Fair and MITM (Malaysia International Travel) Fair – both in March – this year.
Most of these travel companies offer ocean sailings on large ships, the kinds that carry a capacity of thousands of passengers and crewmen. But Malaysians are now starting to see the charm in river sailings.
“We’ve been selling here in Malaysia since 2017, and it’s really picking up now. We’re already seeing businesses up 20% over 2019, which is great. And 2019 was already a good year,” said Ellen Bettridge, president and chief executive officer of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Bettridge said that Malaysians typically choose the “Enchanting Danube” itinerary from Uniworld, where ships sail from Budapest in Hungary to Passau in Germany, over eight days. This itinerary covers parts of Eastern Europe, namely Hungary, Germany and Austria.
“It’s a different way to travel in Europe. And we have some seasoned travellers who want that – something different from the usual tour packages,” Bettridge said.
Another popular itinerary among Malaysians is the “Castles Along The Rhine”, which begins in Basel, Switzerland and ends in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. During the eight-day voyage, the ship will make a few stops in Germany and France, and will sail past numerous medieval castles, fairytale towns and Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Other up-and-coming itineraries include those that feature Burgundy and Provence (France), and Venice (Italy).
“Everyone likes Italy and you can’t go wrong with an Italian itinerary,” Bettridge shared.
Although Venice has banned mega ships from entering its port, smaller river cruise ships like those from Uniworld are permitted to dock.
“Our ships are small! On average they carry 120 passengers. That’s actually what really sets river cruising apart from ocean sailings. Our ships are small floating boutique hotels that go from place to place every day,” she said.
Of course, Bettridge herself if a big fan of river cruises. Her most recent one was a festive Christmas market cruise, which she said is also very popular among Malaysian travellers. She says that Malaysians love experiencing the cooler seasons in Europe so would normally choose itineraries that run at the end of the year.
“We find that Malaysians like to go to Europe in April or May, which is spring time, as well as from late October to December. These are when the cities are pretty because of the colours of the flowers in bloom during spring, and the colours of the tree leaves in autumn,” she shared.
Uniworld, part of The Travel Corporation, has a 40% repeat rate in Malaysia, too, meaning that most passengers who sail with the company will return for the next sailing or in the next year. They also tend to bring their friends with them the next time they sail. “That’s the best part for us. Couples who sail together tend to bring other couples along the next time they book with us. I think most Malaysians love to travel in large groups, which is great for us!” Bettridge said.
She tells of a particular Malaysian guest who really loves to go on river cruises. “She’s been sailing with us for a while now ... 10 years. And she is about to go on her 50th cruise with us in May! She’s amazing, and she was one of the first Malaysians to sail with us.
“She’s a huge fan of river cruises and would usually bring her friends and family along with her. She would travel alone, too, and she would enjoy herself tremendously because she feels so comfortable on the ship,” Bettridge shared, adding that crew members will always make the effort to know each passenger by name by the end of the day. This, she says, is another advantage of cruising on a smaller ship.
Bettridge also feels that the all-inclusive nature of the river cruises are what entices most passengers. When you book a Uniworld cruise, the price that you pay covers everything – room and board, all meals (including all beverages), excursions and even, gratuity. This is perhaps particularly helpful to Malaysians – or Asians in general – as we do not have a tipping culture, and therefore don’t know how much to tip when we are abroad.
Bettridge agrees. “Yes, I think being an all-inclusive service, passengers feel more comfortable while on our cruises. They don’t have to worry about overspending while having a drink or a meal on the ship, for example. When we’re on vacation, we do not want to worry about having a second glass of wine because we might go over budget, right?”
Another thing that makes Uniworld’s river cruises more attractive are the different excursions offered each day. Passengers are given a “menu” of what’s on offer the next day, every night. Choose any of the bespoke experiences and the crew will arrange everything for you.
Some of the more interesting experiences includes vinegar tasting in Cologne (Germany), a sunrise hike in Bordeaux (France) and a Jewish heritage tour in Germany, where guide talk about the history of the people and places along the Rhine river.
The company currently has a “generations” programme that offers special itineraries for younger passengers (tweens to teens), so if you’re thinking of going on a river cruise, you don’t have to worry about the kids “getting bored”. Bettridge said the programme is perfect for children who are old enough to appreciate being somewhere different, trying new cuisines and experiences, and no longer need a babysitter, though there will still be someone around to lead and guide them.
Uniworld has 17 ships marked for river cruises, with 12 of them docked in European rivers. The others are in the Nile in Egypt, the Amazon (specifically, Peru), the Ganges in India and the Mekong in Vietnam. Bettridge noted that Egypt is one of the strongest destinations for the company at the moment, with the Amazon following closely.
“It’s become very popular,” she said of the Amazon itinerary.
“We’ve only had it for a few year and it’s a tiny ship; only 36 passengers. But guests absolutely love the experience. Every day they go on these tiny boats with a guide and get into the jungles. It’s very adventurous.”
The company also has three “grand itineraries”, where you sail for up to three weeks on slightly bigger ships. These grand itineraries will take you through a combination of rivers in Europe, that will eventually bring you back on the main route.
In terms of sustainability, Uniworld has taken many steps to minimise its carbon footprint, including measuring the amount of food that they waste each day. This began last year on five ships, and Bettridge said that in just a short amount of time, they learned so much about food wastage.
“We learned quickly what guests are eating and what they’re not. We learned guests’ eating patterns within the first few meals and then adjusted the menus to avoid wasting so much. It seems like a small thing but it actually makes a big difference,” she said.
Bettridge revealed that the company is also looking at making the move to using alternative fuels, which are more sustainable. They are currently working with Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands) to come up with an even better alternative.
“We’ve invested in their research to find out the best alternative fuel. We want to lead the way when it comes to this,” she concluded.