Demand for Europe river cruises keeps pace with capacity surge

By Michelle Baran
Despite a fair amount of new capacity coming onto the European river market this year, the river cruise lines say they are filling their ships for the 2012 season ahead of their 2011 booking pace.

“We are actually running into a space problem here because [river cruising is] doing very, very well,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of Ama Waterways.

Ama is launching the 164-passenger Amacerto on April 12, increasing the capacity of its European fleet by 13.7% and bringing its European fleet size to nine vessels. Karst said Ama is 91.6% booked through Oct. 31 and 85% booked through Dec. 31.

Avalon Waterways is also reporting strong sales for 2012. Avalon Managing Director Patrick Clark said 2012 “is looking very good.” He said sales are up 28% in 2012 compared with this time last year.

In May, the company will launch two ships in Europe: the 166-passenger Avalon Vista and 128-passenger Avalon Visionary, sister ships to the Avalon Panorama.

“The three Panorama-class ships are very close to being sold out,” Clark reported.

With the two new ships, Avalon’s European fleet will number 11 vessels in 2012.

Clark said the best-selling itineraries for 2012 are the 14-night Amsterdam to Budapest cruise, the seven-night Romantic Rhine cruise and the seven-night Danube with Prague and France cruise.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has seen a 25% uptick in 2012 bookings compared with this time last year, according to Uniworld President Guy Young.

Uniworld has no additional capacity coming in 2012. Young said there is still availability for the year in Europe but space is beginning to get tight on the more popular itineraries during the high season.

He also said the company is doing less discounting than it was a year ago.

The offers Uniworld does have in the market are tactical offers tied to airfare, to help agents and clients overcome the high cost of air to Europe, Young said.

VikingLongship-RenderingThe line that was most vague about its booking levels for 2012 was Los Angeles-based Viking River Cruises, which is launching an unprecedented six new ships this year, bringing the company’s European fleet size to 19 vessels.

The new Viking Longships add about 30% capacity to its European fleet, according to Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing at Viking.

Marnell would not divulge what percentage of the company’s European fleet capacity is booked but said, “We are further ahead for 2012 than we were at this point for 2011.”

Moreover, he added: “We’re very pleased with the load factors we received.”

Beyond Europe

Beyond the river cruise lines’ traditional Europe product, emerging markets like the Volga in Russia and the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia are reportedly selling extremely well.

Uniworld, for example, said it has very limited space left on its Russia and Mekong sailings for 2012. Avalon, too, reported that its Mekong itineraries are doing very well.

As Egypt continues to grapple with political unrest in the lead-up to presidential elections there in June, Nile River cruises have stalled for 2012.

“We are operating all the itineraries that we have brochured,” Young said of Uniworld’s 82-passenger River Tosca ship on the Nile. “But unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of momentum.”

Clark said, “Egypt and Nile cruises are not selling. The current environment is simply not conducive to attracting tourists.”

A peek at 2013

Given the strong booking trends, most river cruise operators have already opened up sales for many of their 2013 departures.

Ama, for example, has made about 80% of its 2013 departures available for booking, something it normally waits until about mid-March to do.

One big trend for next year is interest in Portugal.

Viking is introducing a Portugal and Spain itinerary in 2013 on the relaunched 124-passenger Viking Duoro. And Ama Waterways will also lease a newbuild in Portugal next year: The 106-passenger Amavida will launch on April 2, 2013.

The Viking Duoro was formerly the Duoro Spirit, a ship built in 2011 that Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has been chartering from its owner, Duoro Azul.

Uniworld, in the meantime, will lease a newbuild for 2013, the 118-passenger Queen Isabel, also owned by Duoro Azul.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 
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