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Historic hovercraft trip down Mekong 'a dream come true'

Historic hovercraft trip down Mekong 'a dream come true'

historic.jpg
historic.jpg

Skimming across the Tonle Sap in a Chinese-made hovercraft, the organizers of a flagship

Mekong voyage hailed the 17-day expedition as a resounding success. That was despite

the fact that the craft carried only two full-fare passengers.

The crew prepare to cast off at Siem Reap bound for Phnom Penh.

The journey, which began in Kunming, China on November 2 and ended in Ho Chi Minh

City on November 18, was the first time a hovercraft has plied Cambodian waters.

For the gang of eager travel enthusiasts on board, it was the trip of lifetime.

The expedition was a joint venture between Diethelm Travel and business consultants

The Brooker Group. Armin Schoch, director of Diethelm Travel, said that the expedition

was one-off adventure for intrepid travelers.

"This was a demonstration of the cooperative spirit between the six Greater

Mekong Subregion [GMS] countries," he proclaimed. "We've also made history

- it's been 136 years since anyone has traveled the entire navigable length of the

Mekong in one boat."

Schoch brushed aside suggestions that the journey was not the great success the organizers

had hoped for, and added it was a blessing in disguise that more people did not take

up a seat on the $7,700 per passenger trip.

"It's not profitable, but the objective was never commercial," he said.

"In hindsight I'm not sad we didn't have [more passengers]. To have a boatload

of full paying passengers who had to be pampered ... would have been a nightmare."

The trip was the brainchild of the Brooker Group's Peter Brimble, who first saw the

hovercraft on a trip to China in 1996.

The expedition went on the back burner during the economic crisis of 1997, but was

revived soon after. Diethelm Travel took up the challenge when approached in 2000,

and the trip was well on the way to becoming a reality with its official launch at

the 6th Mekong Tourism Forum in Kunming in April 2001.

However the pair had not banked on an angry backlash from environmentalists and other

travel agents, who claimed the 24-seat hovercraft could do serious damage to its

surroundings.

"[It was] a very silly story in as much as some competitors in the tourism business

tried to put down the project as possibly environmentally unfriendly, citing things

like the hovercraft bowling over small fishing boats," said Schoch. "[It

was] a silly story out of jealousy, so we conducted an environmental study."

The study, carried out by independent consultant Dr John M Baker at the behest of

the Brooker Group and Diethelm Travel, found no significant negative environmental

impact from the hovercraft.

Environmentalists contacted by the Post agreed, and could think of no significant

effects the 8.8 ton,13-meter hovercraft could have on the Mekong's eco-system.

However the trip did raise the issue of further development of the Mekong. The Commercial

Navigation Agreement, which came into effect in 2001 and was signed by Myanmar, Laos,

China and Thailand, paved the way for plans to blast reefs and rapids in the upper

reaches of the river.

The Mekong River Com-mission's senior environmental specialist Ian Campbell said

a plan was drawn up by the Yunnan Ports and Harbor Department. The project called

for the removal of obstructions in the channel to allow 100-ton boats to traverse

the waterway.

"Documents produced ... outlined a three phase project," he said, "[but]

concerns were raised that the [plans] were not very well done, and were not to international

standard. There was almost no data on fish, ecology or social communities."

Campbell said that Mekong development was driven by trade, however, not tourism,

and praised the hovercraft expedition as beneficial to the region.

"I think it would be a wonderful thing to develop," he said. "The

people are poor and need to find alternative livelihoods and tourism will provide

this."

The residents of Siem Reap harbor certainly seemed curious about the boat. As it

made its noisy approach to dock, curious villagers gathered to stand and stare, many

getting drenched by the displaced water in the process.

"It's nice looking, but strange," said harbor worker Heng Hour. "None

of these people have seen anything like it before."

And it seems unlikely that they will ever see anything like it anytime soon. The

trip, with its logistical worries, high price and long stretch on the water is not

likely to be repeated by Diethelm Travel. But for the two paying passengers on board,

it was all worthwhile.

"This was a very expensive trip for me, but what's the price of quality,"

asked Belgian Cyriel Van Tilborgh. "What is the price of a dream come true?"

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