A YEAR into its high profile launch in London and nine months of actual operations on the Rajang River, the RV Orient Pandaw, a river cruise ship owned and operated by Rajang Pandaw Sdn Bhd in Miri, had served more than 800 people between July 2009 and February 2010.
The bulk of the tourists came from Europe, Australia and North America and there has been only one Malaysian passenger.
The Pandaw Cruise on the Rajang River is designed specifically for the niche markets oversea. It is understood that the average age of the passengers is 55, most of them retired professionals.
Many of them are also loyal Pandaw clients having previously experienced Pandaw cruises in Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar or India.
The nine-day, eight-night cruise with full board, costs from US$3,255 (RM10,814) to US$4,995 (RM16,595) depending on the category of accommodation.
The cabin on the main deck for single use is US$3,255 while the twin-sharing on the upper deck costs US$4,995.
The entire cruise covers approximately 719km, departing from Sibu on the first, 10th and 20th of each month. The journey ends in Sibu after touring Kanowit, Song, Kapit, Baleh and Pelagus in the upper Rajang, and Sarikei and Tanjung Manis in the lower Rajang.
The cruising speed is between three to six knots.
“It moves like a floating log,” said Rudy Anoi, an executive with the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) in Sibu. Rudy was on board the ship recently to gather data on the cruise operation.
He said the tourists were generally happy and satisfied with the service and food on board as well as the ground activities.
The menu consists of Western food and local delicacies such as fish and chicken in bamboo, wild jungle fern and umai (raw fish salad). Passengers also had the chance to taste ijok (wild palm wine) in Song, Rudy revealed.
The ground activities include an optional walking tour of Sibu town, a visit to Fort Emma and a rubber plantation in Kanowit, a visit to Fort Sylvia and the Teresang Native Market as well as an Iban longhouse in Kapit and Baleh, respectively.
Further upriver from Kapit, passengers are transferred to smaller boats to see and feel the excitement of the Pelagus Rapids.
Jungle-trekking and bird-watching in the forests around the Pelagus Rapids are among the other activities.
On its return journey from Pelagus, RV Orient Pandaw anchors in Song. Here, passengers are again transferred to smaller boats for a half-day excursion along the scenic Katibas River.
From Katibas, the ship sails to Sarikei in the lower Rajang. where tourists visit a pepper garden and a waterfall amid a tropical jungle setting.
The next destination is Kuala Rajang at the river mouth where passengers visit a traditional Melanau songket-weaving factory before returning to Sibu.
The arrival of RV Orient Pandaw heralds the beginning of an organised river cruise industry in Sibu.
But, it has been received with mix feelings from the general public and tourism industry players.
While business for the cruise operator is good, local businessmen in the hotel, food and travel industries claim they are being left out because they had earlier anticipated that the influx of foreign tourists would greatly benefit their businesses.
“The benefit is almost zero,” claimed the chairman of the Central Region Hotel Association, Johnny Wong.
He said the association had more than 60 members who own or operate hotels in Sibu, Bintangor, Sarikei, Kanowit, Kapit and Mukah.
He pointed out that none of the association members had directly benefitted from it because the river cruise package did not include accommodation in hotels onshore.
As food is also provided onboard, local restaurants and food outlets also felt left out.
“I understand that there is no guided city tour in Sibu. They should at least make arrangements to visit the Mini Museum, the Lau King Howe Hospital Memorial Museum and the Heritage Walk at Sungai Merah,” Wong said.
Echoing the same sentiments was Roy Ting, Sibu laision head of Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH). He urged the state tourism authorities to discuss with the cruise owner to include a half-day city tour.
He also felt that the tourists should stay at least a night in a local hotel and dine in local restaurants at least once during their stay in Sibu.
Both Ting and Wong said they were sceptical about the future of the cruise.
They added that the serious erosion and pollution on the Rajang River could be detrimental to the image and reputation of tourism in this region.
“Unless prompt measures are taken to solve or at least minimise these problems, I am afraid that we will all be adversely affected by bad publicity once the tourists return to their home country,” said Wong.
Patrick Ling, whose company Greatown Travel Sdn Bhd handles the ground arrangements including airport transfers, refuted the allegation that the operation was not benefitting local businesses.
“More than RM400,000 is channelled to Sibu to pay for salaries, food, fuel and other necessities every month. Surely this money is directly benefitting some sectors in Sibu,” he pointed out.
He said people’s expectations of Pandaw Cruise were too high when it was only in its infancy.
“I believe the cruise industry will benefit more people in the long run. Do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” he added.
On the pollution and erosion along the river, Ling agreed that there should be concerted efforts to overcome the problem. He said the management of Pandaw Cruise would do its part to promote river cleanliness among longhouse folk in the near future.
“Pandaw has also identified other areas where they can help, such as education, fire prevention and environmental awareness campaign,” he said.
He also disclosed that the Pandaw Cruise package would be amended to include a night or two accommodation in hotels in Sibu. The revised package, he added, would be launched in January 2011.
The 60-passenger RV Orient Pandaw has 28 crew members. Two members of the crew are working as nature guides. Local crew members will eventually be trained to take over the entire operation.
The ship weighs 827 tonnes and is 55m long and 10m wide. It has 30 cabins on four decks. With its ultra shallow draft of only 90cm, it was specially designed and built to penetrate many remote areas unreachable by other vessels.
Pandaw Cruise is served by a network of more than 8,000 agents around the world. Many of the passengers make their bookings online a year ahead. The average length of their stay in the country is 18 days.