Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong was the first business to offer cruises from Siem Reap to Saigon on the Mekong river aboard a converted barge in 2002. Nine years later, the company has a fleet of four ships with 10 to 24 cabins, bringing in revenue of about US$3 million each year.
The company – which charters its French colonial-style boats to cruise companies throughout the world – was the brainchild of a Paris-based tour operator who specialised in small cruise adventure trips in exotic global locations. Ownership has been since been transferred to British and French investors.
General manager Naidah Yazdani said the company’s two largest ships, Indochine and Lan Diep, are chartered by German cruising company Phoenix Reisen and Paris’ Rivage Du Monde, to sell directly to European tourists.
Aiming towards a higher-end market, a typical 10-day cruise can cost about US$4,000 for a double cabin.
“Our biggest market is probably France, followed by Germany. We also get a lot of people from America,” Yazdani said.
Cabins in the two smaller vessels, Toum Tiou I and Toum Tiou II, are booked from the company’s office in Phnom Penh, with the occasional charter by French or United States-based cruising companies. The growing popularity of Cambodia as a tourist destination is both good and bad news for Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong.
The tourism boom – which saw tourist arrivals increase by about 16 percent in 2010 over 2009, according to the Ministry of Tourism – is bringing more cruise companies to the river with much larger luxury ships.
Yazdani said he is worried the capital’s infrastructure won’t keep up with the rise in business on the Mekong.
“What is a concern is the infrastructure in Phnom Penh, because if you have all these ships berthed in Phnom Penh you need to have pontoons and piers, and it seems that a lot of ships are developing quickly, but perhaps we haven’t got that infrastructure for them at the moment,” he said.
Despite these concerns, Yazdani said the company had partly benefited from growing cruise ship competition. “The market is now becoming more and more popular. It’s gone crazy and we don’t even have enough cabins,” he said.
But more ships also means more tourists, and Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong is also worried more competition will ruin the appeal of its voyages.
“If you go to these villages and you’ve got all these big ships that come in, you’ll end up seeing other tourists there and that takes away that whole experience. The whole point of going there is to take people away from the tourist places and show them the real local villages and how the people are living,” he said.
Yazdani added that the tourism dollar brought in by the business had an enormous flow-on effect to the local economy, from the 90 Cambodian and Vietnamese staff employed by the company, to the villages the cruises visit.
“If I could list all of the companies that we give business to, there’s lots; water, food, oil suppliers, tradespeople. It’s a long list,” he said.
“Obviously these kinds of businesses are good because tourism in general brings business to everybody in Cambodia.”
He said travellers tended to be aged about 65, although the occasional young person or 90-year-old could be spotted on board. “I remember we had a 93-year-old who was the leader of the pack.
“When someone is over 90 and decides to travel to the other side of the world it means they’re very active.”