Thursday, February 26, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part V (Perspectives on Experiencing Developing Ports)

Two of the great attractions of an Azamara Club Cruises are its exotic itineraries and late departures/overnights in various ports which give you more time to explore…even if you are back onboard for dinner. 
Proboscis Monkey
Lubak Bay, Borneo, Malaysia 
But to me the more interesting thing is the interplay between guests visiting clearly underdeveloped ports and their expectations as to what the tours are going to be like. And this is where the concept of being a “traveler” (Azamara Club Cruises’ target market) and being a fare-centric “cruiser” less interested in the itinerary, but getting "value for money" really comes into play.   And while Azamara Club Cruises provides good value for a premium cruise experience I am finding the "travelers" who are generally paying more are extremely satisfied while, ironically, the "value for money" folks look for things to complain about...in part because they want to "cruise" rather than "travel".

Honestly, it does become tiresome when some folks learn who I am and believe I am the great repository for all of their complaints (legitimate and curious), which I politely listen to and then, subtly, try to give a different perspective to consider.  As you read this article I would ask you to look at the photographs and decide if sometimes the imperfect opportunities visiting remote areas are worthy of tolerance and forgiveness or not.

Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia
Realty Check No. 1

The Azamara Quest is visiting some pretty remote ports and despite all the National Geographic shows you my watch, the fact is that you probably should be watching Globe Trekker or Anthony Bourdain to have a more realistic understanding of what you will encounter.  Additionally, you demand things to be developed to American/British standards and tastes and be sorely disappointed or you can feel honor and excitement to be on the cutting edge of newly developing tourist markets.

Our Honda Bay, Philippines boat was not up to Western standards...
and you literally had to walk the plank...but the "captain" was excellent
and made sure we were safe
For example, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines I chose the Honda Bay Island Hopping & Snorkeling tour.  It says, for example, “hop onto a boat”, well that was quite optimistic, though accurate.  Actually we hopped into the water and then up a rickety plank onto a wooden outrigger “boat” of dubious seaworthiness (life jackets mandatory!) and then headed out to our first island, Luli Island.  And then…the winds picked up, the seas got a bit rough and the currents were looking a bit difficult.  (That’s where the italics at the end of the ship’s description come in, “Note:  such water activities could be subject to adverse sea conditions such as high winds, waves and sea currents” though not mentioning the small bamboo outrigger with a put-put motor.)

Cowrie Island, Philippines
When we got to Luli island I found out this was the first time this tour was ever run and that, as was noted quite proudly I might add, last year five cruise ships had visited the port.  (That would be less than visit Cozumel, Mexico on any given day!) As such there just isn’t the money – yet -  for the fancy boats and posh accommodations (and the locals probably have never seen anything like what you might be expecting.)  Facilities included table-come-bar (warmish San Miguel Lite for 40…or is that 60…or is that 80 pesos?!), a rickety diving platform and an anti-jellyfish netted swim/snorkel area with a few shacks.  You could call it charming or a dump.  I go for charming.



Note:  Just like I say to many of my prospective clients, one thing that makes Goldring Travel different is that I have “been there and done that” because reading something out of brochure of a computer screen just isn’t the same.


Reality Check No. 2

Tourism is new to these remote areas and the locals are learning how to (a) determine what they have which is attractive to tourists; (b) market to the tourists; and (c) understand that tourists view things coming from a different culture.  As a result, there are sites which the locals may think are great that a tourist might consider a “misrepresentation”; marketing that makes something ordinary sound idyllic because that is how Marketing 101 is taught; and, things such as waiting in a queue for an hour go from day-to-day life to a huge irritation because they weren’t specifically disclosed and wasted time.

Viewing Platform at Orangutan Sanctuary

For example, in Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve which consisted of a 45 minute drive, a 30 minute wait for the reserve to open, a 10 minute walk to a viewing area, a 45 minute wait for the feeding, a 15 minute viewing of the four orangutans, then a walk back to the bus, a 45 minute drive to Lubak Bay to view the Proboscis monkeys, an hour viewing them from a viewing house and then a drive back to the ship.  In other words it was not the trekking through the forest or holding baby orangutans (long forbidden) some expected, but it was a controlled, fairly comfortable, viewing experience that 200+ people could engage in at one time. 


Was it my best primate viewing experience?  No.  Monkey Jungle in Miami or the Bronx Zoo in New York do a good bit better; especially with education of visitors.  But does it inspire me to maybe return to Borneo for a land experience or possibly on a more immersive Silversea Expedition cruise. Absolutely.  This was just a tiny taste!

There is something about seeing a Proboscis Monkey
in its native Borneo that is special 

Pictures of baby monkeys are always a winner.
And increasing monkey populations in a reserve that would have
been part of a palm oil plantation is encouraging
But I also view my tour including me as part of a new culture of saving the forests and these primates by partnering with the local people to make the tourist economy more profitable than cutting down trees and slash and burn farming.  It was, to a degree, a donation of some of my time, some of my money and, hopefully, a bit of inspiration to carry on and expand their efforts and commitments.

(It was noteworthy to me that at Sepilok there was no souvenir shop so no t-shirts, no donation opportunity, no stuffed orangutans to bring home to the kids.  Imagine the sales that would have been generated in the 30 minutes we waited for the place to open and the time we waited to board the bus!  The local populace is learning, but it will take time.)   

Reality Check No. 3

There will be some “hits” and there will be some “misses” by the locals.

For example, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines the Azamara Quest was greeted by many of the locals, with huge, genuine smiles, and small gifts (straw hats) as we disembarked and the same when we returned.  As we sailed away the local youth band and dancers put on a high energy, big talent, show that actually brought a tear to my eye as they were so genuine, so happy (you could see the smiles never stopped), and so wanting things to be special.  (Some folks who were poolside actually asked the ship’s band to stop playing so they could enjoy the show on the dock.)

Tropical Reef Fish - Pandan Island, Philippines
The next port, Manila, Philippines was a bit different.  We were to arrive at 7:00 a.m., but arrived at 6:30 a.m.  And the drum corps started and kept going:  6:45 a.m.; 7:00 a.m., 7:30 a.m. (I’m about to lose it after an hour); 8:00 a.m., and finally, with the ship asking for mercy, it ended at 8:30 a.m.  Two hours of non-stop drumming.  It was like being trapped in an American high school football halftime show…as you tried to lie in bed with the pillow over your head pleading for some peace and quiet.

As I write this I am “enjoying” another 1.5 hours of a “Battle of the Bands” in Manila as we await our sail away.  It is much improved, though, over our greeting.  And it also has provided me with an interesting view of the tensions here as we depart:  There is a fairly strong anti-American tone in Manila, but things like marching bands, cheerleaders, dancers and baton twirlers performing to American tunes from the 60s to present (including Frozen) is about as American as one can get.

Reality No. 4

The shore excursion staff (Land Discovery staff on Azamara Club Cruises) have probably not been to these ports and have little, if any, additional information from what you have been able to gather from the pre-cruise documentation and the onboard port lectures/television shows.  Folks, you are not visiting Barcelona so there is not a pool of knowledge to be drawn from.

The fact is that most cruise lines do not do a great job of providing local information because they are focused on providing tours…and those things are focused on information and places that can handle 25 to 250 people at a time.  But even then, many times the cruise lines are dependent on the information the port agents and internal shore excursion departments provide them. 

A beautiful crab in Borneo
Sometimes you just have to take a moment rather than race back to the bus!
Yes, Azamara Club Cruises does have local information agents board the ship for a few hours after arrival, but for those wondering about such things as how far is the assigned port from X or where is a good place to Y, it can be frustrating.

Azamara Club Cruises is very good at having a ship's representative on all tours and usually more than one.  I have been particularly impressed with Beatriz who is not only charming and intelligent, but enthusiastic while making sure things are organized and everyone is taken care of.  (The fact that her husband is a sommelier onboard hasn't swayed my opinion at all.  I promise!)

Interested in learning more about some of the more exotic ports or Azamara Club Cruises, email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.