Notes From the Back of Beyond
For the past year we’ve been based in Indonesia working as consultants for Conservation International’s Indonesia Marine Programs, specifically in diving’s newest hotspot, Raja Ampat. We’re out here to produce a dive guide for R4 (Raja means “king” and Ampat means “four” in Bahasa Indonesia). Imagine someone saying to you, “How about spending months diving the best reefs in the world with unlimited photographic opportunities and we’ll pay you while you’re at it?” No way were we going to refuse first prize in the career lottery!
Actually we’re well suited for the job, having discovered some of Indonesia’s best dive sites and shepherded many liveaboards into becoming world-class operations. Our experience stems from the late 1980s when we were the first managers of the Bilikiki in the Solomons. Back when Bilikiki began cruising it was one of the first boats to have ensuite rooms. It was a big deal and an almost unheard of luxury. After leaving the Solomons, we went on our first Indonesian liveaboard. The diving was spectacular, but the outdoor shower and bucket-flushed toilet were a bit of a come down.
Today Indonesia has one of the largest liveaboard fleets in the world. We’re not up on exact numbers in other countries, but probably only the Red Sea and perhaps Australia match or exceed the number of boats cruising this vast archipelago. Obviously more boats mean stiffer competition for revenue. Lately we’ve noted a thought-provoking trend: Liveaboard owners are upping the ante on amenities in order to compete in a crowded market.
We’re interested in the long-term survival of not only the Indonesian liveaboard industry, but also the worldwide market, so we’d like some reader feedback on the issue of liveaboard facilities. Do amenities equal service? How much is enough? And, what’s the limit divers are willing to pay for gourmet meals, high thread count sheets and over-sized cabins with picture windows?
We admit we’re pushing 60 and think twice before booking a boat without ensuites or air conditioning, unless it is the only way to see a never-before-dived area. But in today’s economy with liveaboard prices climbing closer and closer to the $500/day mark, would you rather pay less for a clean, basic boat and perhaps have enough left over cash for a second dive trip that year? Or, do you crave more “bling” for your bucks?
Assuming that higher day rates mean better facilities, where would you prefer the liveaboards “invest” your money? Is it larger, amenity-filled cabins and free alcohol, or improved dive tenders, photo facilities and higher dive guide to diver ratios? In your experience do amenities always equal service? Or are lower priced boats as competitive when it comes to important things like in country services and knowledgeable dive guides.
It’s true that active, traveling divers are an aging group, but is this because they are the only ones who can afford exotic dive trips? If so, is the age demographic behind all the upgrades to levels not even dreamed about twenty years ago? Considering that a dive vacation is a non-essential luxury, we’re not sure that more amenities (and higher day rates) will attract more customers. Are you?