Sinking in a Sea of Luxury?

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?

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8 thoughts on “Sinking in a Sea of Luxury?”

  1. My wife and I are basically with Michael Emerson. We’ve done two liveaboards, one in the Caribbean on the Explorer II, and the other in Indonesia on the Serenade.

    To us the Caribbean Explorer II was like a luxury boat. The Serenade on the other hand was somewhat like backpacking at sea. The air conditioning only worked when the tanks weren’t being filled, the food was Indonesian, and the camera table was also the table we ate on. The only shower was with “cold” water.

    However, we’d do the Serenade again in a heartbeat. We did 4-6 dives a day in some remote islands north of Sulawesi and had a fantastic experience. The crew were fantastic and devoted to making us have a great time.

    There is no way we could have afforded to do this trip on one of the other boats with lots of amenities.

    So for us where and how much are the most important priorities. Food and minor comforts can be ignored for a couple of weeks.


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  2. Very interesting comments from all of the above. I understand that a vacation means a bit of luxury, i.e. a comfortable bed, pillow and good (no, make that excellent, food). But if the diving criteria isn’t met then you might as well go to a resort that offers all of the above and forget the diving, right?

    I do agree with Steve that liveaboards need to go out of their way to provide a little more interaction with locals whenever possible. Village visits have always been a highlight of trips to the Solomons, for example. In Indonesia, certain areas have great potential for village visits and other shore excursions and others don’t.

    Why travel halfway around the world to eat what you can eat in any mall in the US and only see what’s underwater? At today’s prices, divers should be able to enjoy a comfortable facility, great guides, and excellent food, including local cuisine, a shore excursion or two, and superb diving!

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  3. I am going to avoid listing the basic items (competent, friendly staff, functioning equipment and facilites, etc.) because I would expect this from any liveaboard of any price range. I believe the original questing is asking about what I would need for a premium price, so I will focus on that.

    My wife and I have stopped using liveaboards, despite the superior diving they offer, because of the inferior amenities. I can survive minimalist facilities, but that is not what I look for on trips when I am spending big cash just getting to an exotic location. We usually focus on higher end hotels/resorts on our travels, so we are familiar with what the competing land based alternatives are.

    Things I would be want to see to get me to use a liveaboard again:
    1) better, higher quality food – I don’t want to be offered the same food as you would find at a high school cafeteria, even if the portion sizes are large. This is my biggest issue with the ratings system on Undercurrent. I have noticed that ratings tend to commingle value with quality. A gourmet meal prepared by a Michelin 3 star chef would get a poor/OK rating in Undercurrent because the portions were small, but all-you-can-eat McDonald’s hamburgers would be a 5 star rating. I would love for the rating system to tell me if they provide good food or bad food and then list the portion sizes separately. Everyone can make their own decision on value if you tell us the price and the quality of the meal.

    2) Beds that fit me and my wife. We are both thin people, but I am 6’3″. Sleeping with my feet off the end of the bed is no fun. A pillow that doesn’t feel like a scavenged piece of coral would be a bonus as well.

    Aside from those two main priorities, I would appreciate some exposure to the local environment – When we travel to exotic locations, we want to feel like we have seen part of the local environment. I don’t want to go to Indonesia to eat American meatloaf or watch reruns of Friends on DVD on a small TV. Most of the staff comes from the local islands, have them make some of the local cuisine. We normally like to take a day off in the middle of solid week of diving to explore the local environment. A well set up island tour would be a bonus.

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  4. I will echo Brian’s comments and priorities. I sure don’t want to travel half way around the globe to have a surly dive master or one that won’t show me the good spots. Bilikiki in the Solomons was a good trip this March. It is an old boat, but was just out of the yard and everything worked. The crew was friendly and went out of their way to make the trip pleasant. Therefore I recommend it. The Star Dancer in the Galapagos last year was also good, but our group had the better dive master. The other group did not fair as well with the less experienced dive master and did not see the schooling hammerheads we saw. That was the high point of the trip, and a long trip at that. The best boat with all the amenities is not a good value if the staff can’t find the game or get you in a location for that great photo. We were fortunate to have the better guide, but it could have gone the other way.


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  5. Have mostly dived with “name” operators, ie., Peter Hughes and Aggressor boats, and have never had to compromise between good diving and good food/lodging.

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  6. Hi Michael and Brian,

    Thanks for your comments. I think you both echo the feelings of the majority of divers who are interested in diving above all else. I mean that’s what we’re out there for, right?

    I can not tell you how many times (mainly in the past decades) that Burt and I spent weeks on boats with so few amenities my family was shocked when I showed them the pics. BUT (and it is a big but) the diving was always spectacular, we got to dive as much as we wanted, the food filled us up, and, in many cases, was delicious. We were mostly comfortable, although I remember having to bring along a personal fan on some trips because there wasn’t AC (not a problem today).

    The times we spent on those boats are still some of the best of my life. And, after we get too old or too feeble to dive, that’s what we’ll have left…Our memories. Thanks again for writing. And, Michael, thanks also for showing your kids that another world exists besides the “mall”.

    Best fishes,
    Maurine and Burt

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  7. My experience has been that the cost of the boat has little (or nothing) to do with the quality of the divemasters. I’ve had great divemasters on cheap boats and expensive ones. Similarly, I’ve had some that seemed to care less and were rude on the cheaper and high dollar ones too.

    My qualifications for a good liveaboard (regardless of cost) in order:

    1) must spend time at the best available dive spots in the given location. I’ve been on liveaboards that clearly take people to the easiest place for them instead of the premier sites. I went on a liveaboard to dive and expect the best diving possible and lots of it. Not 3 dives a day because they don’t want to go to the effort to get in another. Lots of great diving. Period.

    2) plenty of food. Doesn’t have to be gourmet, but I don’t expect to be starved either. I’ve been on a couple of boats that I left hungry from a few meals either because the food was inedible or there just wasn’t enough of it. Surprisingly, the cost of the boat has seemed to have little to do with this.

    3) the air conditioner in my bedroom has to work

    4) plenty of water

    5) a good place to work on my cameras (mandatory)

    6) the crew does not damage my equipment/cameras (mandatory)

    7) friendly crew instead of a bad attitude and resenting the passengers.

    I don’t need or expect a luxury cruise liner. However, I do expect a clean boat, good and plentiful diving, decent and plentiful food, and a friendly crew. If I can get that, quite honestly I don’t care what it cost within reason. If 2 boats had a reputation for providing that in a location, I would go with the cheaper alternative.

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  8. I have been fortunate to have traveled on liveaboards with all 3 of my teenage children who love to dive. The experience for a young person to see remote parts of our planet is without equal. All of them have a love of adventure and nature that is foreign to most of their classmates.

    Beyond a basic requirement for AC in the cabin, price is more important to me than lots of amenities. Once on board, the focus is on fantastic and safe diving. I am much more concerned about affording my next trip to Indonesia or PNG than I am about e lot of amenities.

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