The rise of the river-cruise market

Frances Marcellin 10 October 2019 (Last Updated October 4th, 2019 11:05)

With eight new river ships launching in 2019 alone, river cruise companies are driving the market forward. This is tying in with travel trends that show the fact that passengers now prefer to spend money on experiences rather than possessions, as well as the ongoing backlash against over tourism. Who are the key players vying to compete with the traditional cruise lines?

The rise of the river-cruise market
The river cruise industry continues to grow. Credit: Jerome Strauss (via Wikimedia Commons).

As the number of passengers holidaying on ocean-bound ships continues to rise, river cruises are making waves in the travel market. Smaller ships, educational experiences, intimate settings and increased luxury were highlighted as some of the reasons behind the growing demand for river cruising in CLIA’s recent report. “After group and multigenerational travel, river cruises are the hottest trend in the marketplace,” it says.

CLIA’s insights also claim that almost 80% of travel agents find river cruising attracts non-cruisers into cruising, and that while baby boomers (born between 1948 and 1966) had the largest increase in cruise bookings at 67%, Gen X (1967 – 1981) had the second largest increase at 42%, with Gen Y/Millennials (born after 1981) not too far behind on 36%. According to CLIA, the number of nights spent on river cruises by UK holidaymakers increased by 24% in 2017 to 210,400.

Viking Cruises launching seven new river ships in March 2019 is indicative of the industry’s growth rate and the certainty that it will continue. Regional cuisine, luxurious cabins, cultural enrichment and exclusive experiences are essential parts of Viking’s offering.

Travelling by river provides a unique accessibility to destinations and there are certain locations and itineraries that are also seeing a spike in demand. “River cruises in Europe have seen a 53% year-over-year growth to eastern waterways (Rhine, Moselle, Danube, Elbe) and a 30% growth to western channels (Soane, Seine, Loire), as well as a 24% growth to the south (Douro, Rhone, Dordogne, Garonne, Po),” states CLIA’s report.

Exclusive tours selling out in Europe

“The river cruise industry continues to grow and there is huge potential,” says Michel Grimm, international sales director for CroisiEurope. The company has just launched its sixth ship on the Douro, MS Amalia Rodrigues, to cruise through the UNESCO-classified Douro Valley.

Viking Helgrim, the seventh new ship recently launched by Viking Cruises, has been specifically designed for the Douro River. Running for 220km over five locks, vessels must be no longer than 83m to pass through them (Helgrim is 80m ).

Viking’s recent river cruise trends report says that its ‘River of Gold’ itinerary along the Douro has almost sold out for 2019, forcing the line to start bookings for 2020. It also offers an abundance of exclusive events – for example on a particular Danube river itinerary guests can access The Passion Play in Oberammergau, which is performed only once every ten years. The Privileged Access programme also includes visits to Lobkowicz Palace (Elegant Elbe itinerary) and Hermitage and Gottweig Abbey (Danube Waltz).

“The river cruise industry continues to grow and there is huge potential.”

Walter Littlejohn, Crystal River Cruises’ vice president and managing director, says the company has had to open bookings as far into 2020 and 2021 due to demand. The company’s Signature Events programme offers privileged access and trips to exclusive or special events, such as Vienna’s Belvedere Palace and Rüdesheim’s Monastery Eberbach. Crystal recently introduced luxury ship Crystal Debussy, which will travel along the Rhine, and Crystal Ravel is also joining the river fleet, offering all-balcony, all-butler vessels in Europe.

Smart ship design and technology is opening up new river destinations, bringing more growth to the market. Paddlewheel systems allow CroisiEurope’s ships to cruise on the Elbe and into the heart of Berlin and Prague, as well as take on the shallow waters of the Loire.

“In order to face low water levels, our paddlewheel ships have been built in such a way that they don’t exceed 80cm draft,” explains Grimm.

River cruise passengers are also seeking more luxurious ships with increased space in staterooms, so new destinations and luxurious ships are a winning combination. Grimm says that CroisiEurope’s growing premium fleet offers larger cabins, space optimisation, more light and bigger French balconies.

Destination trends and educational experiences

One of 2019’s hottest destinations  is the Mekong, which starts in China and runs through six countries to Vietnam. Emerald Waterways launched new star-ship Harmony for the Mekong, which offers spacious cabins, 32 273ft2 Panorama balcony suites, and a pool at the ship’s aft.

“The size and height restrictions on European river ships (due to the lock sizes and bridges) is not a concern in Southeast Asia so the ships are able to offer larger cabins and more public spaces,” says Lisa Norton, USA Vice President Brand Management for Emerald Waterways.

She says the ship’s design means Emerald Harmony can access the centre of Ho Chi Minh City rather than be coached in from outside the city.

“Guests in river cruising are much more interested in being educated than guests on large ocean ships,” she says, “so the focus and trend is on excursions and ship-board experiences that educate the guests on the local culture, traditions, ecology, wildlife, arts, foods and history.”

“The focus is on excursions and ship-board experiences that educate guests.”

Receiving blessings at temples from resident monks and exploring the French influence on the architecture of Ho Chi Minh City are two examples of experiences tailored to suit river cruise guests.

Uniworld is launching four new super ships in 2020, including SS Mekong Jewel; SS Satet; SS Sao Gabriel; and SS La Venezia, which is a renovation and redesign of River Countess.

“By 2020, more than half of the ships in Uniworld’s fleet will be a super ship,” says Uniworld Boutique River Cruises country manager Sharon Jordan.  She describes the ships as “floating boutique hotels” with “more suites, more dining venues and more luxurious finishes, while maintaining a 2:1 staff to guest ratio”.

UniWorld offers ‘Do as the locals do’ excursions that provide authentic experiences to passengers ‘such as taking part in a Bavarian sausage-making workshop at Germany’s oldest restaurant, Alte Wurstkuche’.

The combination of luxury and space on board, with exclusive or carefully considered excursions are in high demand. This is why UniWorld launched a fully-renovated and transformed SS Bon Voyage in Spring 2019, which sails exclusively on French rivers, such as the Garonne in Bordeaux. It has four new suites, a redesigned top deck with an added swimming pool, a new Bouillon-Pigalle-inspired bistro, and an added chef demonstration area for more engaged culinary experiences.

Wellness trends: staying active onboard

AmaWaterways launched the biggest river ship in Europe in May, AmaMagna, on which the staterooms are comparable in size to cruise ship staterooms (most measuring 355ft2) with full outside balconies.

“River cruises have evolved to meet changing needs of our target market.”

“At nearly twice the width of traditional European river ships, AmaMagna is a distinctive evolution of AmaWaterways’ European river fleet,” says AmaWaterways sales, marketing and digital director Jamie Loizou, who adds that they are seeing a significant number of bookings for the ship from first-time river cruisers.

One of the key trends the company has seen over the last year years is guests becoming far more engaged in wellness and wishing to stay active while on holiday. “River cruises have evolved in recent years to meet the changing needs of our target market,” says Loizou. “An example of this is the development of more active river cruises.”

Loizou says that AmaMagna will offer a wellness studio which is surrounded by a retractable roof and windows so guests can exercise “without ever missing a beautiful Danube river view”. They are also offering more active options on board and at destinations, such as hiking and cycling excursions.

Technology enhancing the passenger experience

Technology that enhances the passenger experience is also making an impact in the river cruise market, closely following this innovation trend in the ocean cruise market. Scenic Luxury Cruises has launched a Tailormade app so guests can access it from their own smartphone devices instead of the original purpose-built, hand-held device that was first launched in 2013. It includes commentary on more than 240 tour options in over 140 European locations, as well as 1,500 points of interest with historical and cultural narration.

“It’s simple to download before travel and lets them start planning their journey itinerary ahead of their river cruise,” says Scenic Group USA managing director Jayne O’Brien.

“It is very important that we use technology to meet the evolving needs of our guests.”

AmaWaterways recently announced the launch of new app ‘myAmaCruise’, which includes information about on-board activities, live itinerary tracking and easy ways to share pictures with family and friends. Guests are also provided with a complimentary WiFi connection.

“As we continue embracing innovation in all areas of our business, it is very important that we use technology to meet the evolving needs of our guests,” said AmaWaterways president and co-owner Rudi Schreiner in a statement.

As passengers become more focused on supporting companies who are reducing environmental damage, technology is playing a role here too. “All of our ships that are being renovated into super ships in 2019 and 2020 have been constructed with sustainable and eco-friendly materials,” says Jordan of UniWorld. These include special hull paint that creates less drag caused by bio-fuelling and energy-efficient LED light fixtures.

Jordan believes that the rise of river cruising is set to continue: “River cruising is such an enjoyable and effortless way to travel that we only anticipate the popularity will continue to increase in years to come.