PHNOM PENH — Gliding through the water almost soundlessly, the ship drifted toward a small landing stage and quickly threw down the gangplank. An elderly man in swimming trunks lounged next to the boat’s swimming pool. Another sipped from a glass of whiskey as he watched the city approach from his private balcony.
This was no ordinary vessel. Unlike the more traditional fishing boats and ferries that ply the waterways of Southeast Asia, the AmaLotus, a cruise ship that began operating in September, contains luxuries like spa treatments, a gym and a swimming pool.
At 92 meters, or 302 feet, in length and capable of holding 124 passengers, the AmaLotus is one of the latest cruise ships to start ferrying tourists between Siem Reap in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.
With competition among cruising companies already fierce on rivers further west — like the Nile, the Danube and the Volga — the Tonle Sap and the Mekong are starting to attract more interest from foreign operators.
The river cruise industry is growing fast worldwide as the baby boom generation in the United States, Europe and Australia enters retirement and looks for new travel experiences. While river cruises represent only a fraction of the global cruise industry, they are the fastest-growing segment of the market, said Bob Sharak, executive vice president of marketing for the Cruise Lines International Association.
“This is, in part, because of the growing number of travelers who have already taken a cruise and are looking for new cruise experiences, but also because the river cruise companies have invested in new ships, developed new itineraries in Europe and elsewhere, including Asia,” he said.
The booming Cambodian tourism industry — tourist arrivals increased to more than 2.5 million people in 2010 from 1 million in 2004 — and large waterways make the country a natural fit for companies on the hunt for new markets.
“For us, it’s an upscale market,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, a river cruise operator based in California that has a 50 percent stake in the AmaLotus along with Indochina Sails, a Vietnamese cruising company.
Prices on the AmaLotus start at $1,599 per person for a seven-night cruise between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City during the low season in June and July, and reach as high as $4,000 for a top-of-the-range suite during the high season, which runs from October until March.
AmaWaterways is not the only company looking to tap into the river cruise market here. Heritage Line, a Vietnamese cruise company began operating a 70-meter liner capable of transporting 52 passengers between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap last month.
The company is also building another ship to be chartered by Viking River Cruises of California. The 94-meter vessel will be capable of holding 124 passengers and is scheduled to start in January 2013.
Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong, founded by Terre Voyages, a travel company based in Paris, was the first cruise company to operate in Cambodia. The idea was to take visitors to the celebrated temples near Siem Reap while also showing them parts of the countryside where most Western travelers have never set foot.
Compagnie Fluviale started out with a 10-cabin boat called the Toum Tiou, the title of a traditional tragic Khmer love story. Fully paneled in wood, the Toum Tiou focuses on tourists looking to travel on a smaller, more intimate vessel.
Still, operating in one of the world’s poorest countries on pristine waters comes with its challenges and responsibilities.
For a start, it is not a year-round industry: cruise ships can reach Siem Reap only between September and January, when the water level in the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is high enough to let them pass.
What is more, environmentalists say boats running on diesel engines pollute freshwater lakes like the Tonle Sap, which is estimated to provide as much as 70 percent of Cambodia’s total protein intake through its fish.
The release of nitrogen oxides, produced when diesel fuel is burned, can lead to acidification in water and soil.
Cruise companies say that they are looking for ways to become more environmentally conscious. Compagnie Fluviale is installing more energy-efficient engines, power generators and air- conditioning units to cut fuel use.
Heritage Line and AmaWaterways are also looking to invest in cleaner engines, though there is still a long way to go until standards reach those being enacted in Europe.
“We’re still way behind developments on the European rivers. due to engineers’ not being able to think that far,” said Mr. Peter of Heritage Line. “Most of our boats are still diesel guzzlers.”
Another challenge for cruise companies is ensuring that the money generated from cruises also reaches the local population.
“That is one of the hard parts: making sure that tourists arriving in Cambodia — that the money they spend works its way down,” said Jimmy Murphy, chairman of AmaWaterways.
The AmaLotus has a total of 57 people working onboard from Europe, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. Ten of them are from Cambodia, working in the kitchen and restaurant and earning an average of $250 per month. Cambodia’s average per capita income is $830 per year, according to recently released government figures.
With aging populations in many countries around the world offering more potential customers, Cambodia’s river cruise industry is poised for further growth.
“The type of customers you find on here are quite interested in learning things,” said Geoff McGeary, the owner of APT Group, an Australian travel company that has a share in AmaWaterways. “They haven’t come on this trip to lie on their back in the sun. They’re out to see things and learn things while they still can.”
By SIMON MARKS