On the seas with Francesco Galli Zugaro

From experiencing his first soft adventure at eight to commandeering his own through small ship cruising, Francesco Galli Zugaro of Aqua Expeditions shares why he loves what he does

“I was on a safari with my dad when I was eight years old and I remember being at the back of a jeep and seeing a rhino behind us,” says Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO of Aqua Expeditions. “It’s a thrill that has always lived on in me and I’ve been scouting for similar adventures ever since.”

For Francesco, that scouting for adventures turned into a business. About 16 years ago, he was given an opportunity to run a business in the space of soft adventure tourism – recreational travel that has a boutique element of catering modern comforts and luxuries to travellers. It was within a private equity group that he was working for that he decided to take on the initiative of running a small-ship luxury expedition company in Ecuador’s the Galapagos Island. And although this business wasn’t his, he loved every aspect of it.

“This is where I cut my teeth in tourism and in this industry. I love the logistics, the complexities of operating in the Galapagos Islands, and selling and marketing a unique travel product with a nature and wildlife focus but taking it to another level with added comfort and luxury,” he says.

Then in 2007, Francesco launched Aqua Expeditions, a boutique luxury river and yacht cruise line offering expedition cruising in exotic locales: the Peruvian Amazon (Aqua Nera and Aria Amazon), the Mekong river in Cambodia and Vietnam (Aqua Mekong), and most recently, the seas of East Indonesia (Aqua Blu).

Francesco shares more about Aqua Expeditions and his favourite parts of travel with Jetgala in this interview.

Why did you choose to build soft adventure tourism through small-ship cruising?
Cruising allows us to create a more diverse guest experience, so that guests are not just relegated to only the resort that they’re staying at. Although many resorts also provide excursions, they are limited by how far you can trek around and it can negatively impact the surrounding environment.

Small-ship cruising, however, gets guests to experience diversity safely. It also avoids competition with big ships because we can go where big ships cannot, plus we have less of an impact on the environment since we’re not setting up a permanent presence. Imagine the difference in impact 20 versus 600 guests disembarking a cruise ship has on a local community. We’re also not restricted to access to energy and water – a vessel is a self-contained, fully autonomous unit where I have full control to create a world class experience that is independent of local infrastructure.

What are the travellers who choose Aqua Expeditions like?
Our guests are willing to rough it out in jungles and lagoons from 9 to 5, as long as they get to come back to an amazing world class accommodation for fine dining and happy hour. We try to have at least three to four guides per group of guests, with a maximum of eight guests to one guide. What they don’t want is to be herded in a big group of 40 guests bringing them on the same excursions. Our guests have the freedom to choose their own adventure or customise their excursions, which can include going out on bikes and kayaks or just having a relaxing time with drinks.

Our guests then come back for meals in the afternoon and in the evening and we get to serve them great food. All of our vessels have had world class chefs consulting on them, such as Michelin-starred David Thompson on Aqua Mekong and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino on the Aria Amazon.

What is the draw of soft adventure tourism for travellers who choose Aqua Expeditions?
Our travellers have been everywhere, like Antarctica and Machu Picchu for example, and they’re looking for something new. Not only that, they stay at the best properties in the world, so they want something innovative, yet does not compromise on creature comforts of luxuries, such as world class service and fine food and beverage options.

I spent half my year either scouting new destinations or developing programmes into the destinations we already operated. Nothing gets offered to our guests unless I personally experience it myself. I understand our consumer demographic and their evolving interests as travellers. To create all this in 20-cabin cruisers with a contemporary twist has been wonderful. By the end of this year, we’ll have four vessels in operation globally and I foresee growing to become a tour de force in small-ship cruising.

Aqua Expeditions recently launched in East Indonesia. How did you decide this was where the next cruise was going to be?
With the Amazon and Mekong, Aqua Expeditions has been a leader in experiential cruising for the past 10 years, but our guests don’t necessarily just want to sail down a river. I considered coastal cruising, which is unlike transoceanic where they are just long voyages across oceans. Instead, it sticks to inland waterways of a specific destination.

After about six months to a year of scouting, I focused on Indonesia. It’s a country that is made up of about 17–18,000 islands, yet people only know one – Bali. There was potential in developing water-based tourism here since it is the only way to connect to these islands beyond Bali. There’s so much to explore here, including Komodo National Park, the Spice Islands and Raja Ampat.

We’ve had a great client base from Southeast Asia and lots more interest in travel to Southeast Asia from our guests from other parts of the world, so it is definitely a good opportunity to be Indonesia right now.

What trends do you see in soft adventure tourism?
Curated experiences and authenticity are definitely trends people are after. Authenticity to me is respecting and showcasing the best of local culture without making it seem contrived. There must be an involvement of the local community and an engagement with our guests as well.

It is part of my concern for the sustainability and protection of the places we cruise to. We see news on the decline of the Amazon, coral bleaching and overfishing in Indonesian waters and dams being built along the Mekong. This has put a sense of urgency in some of our guests to experience these places before the waterways become polluted or dry up. By adventuring with us, they get to see and experience these places as they are and engaging them in a responsible and sustainable way so that these locations can be enjoyed for generations to come.

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