Forty-one river cruise ships are being built and launched in Europe this year and next, a staggering number that conjures images of river cruise ships playing bumper boats along a congested Danube. Vessels forced to raft a half-dozen ships deep as they do on the Nile. River cruise passengers flooding quaint villages along Europe's inland waterways as they all converge on a small town at the same time.
But river cruise insiders insist none of that is going to happen -- at least not if the river cruise lines effectively work together to stagger itineraries, differentiate their land experiences with alternate stops and excursions and encourage municipalities to continually develop and enhance their docking facilities.
In other words, crowding along Europe's rivers isn't a problem yet, and river cruise lines seem determined to act pre-emptively so that congestion doesn't become a problem.
In fact, pre-emptive action is crucial in an industry currently growing by double-digit percentages.
Viking River Cruises alone is building a record 24 river ships in the three years between 2012 and 2014. In addition, Avalon Waterways, Ama Waterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Tauck and Scenic Cruises, among others, are each building from one to three ships a year for the next couple of years.
And those are just the lines that serve the U.S. market. A number of river cruise lines that cater to European source markets are also building up their fleets.
In 2012, there were approximately 240 river cruise vessels sailing Europe's inland waterways, adding up to about 34,000 berths. This year, an additional 22 vessels will be built and launched, and 19 more are already on order for 2014. Those 41 new ships will add about 7,000 more berths over the next two years, according to IG River Cruise, an association of river cruise lines based in Basel, Switzerland. (These totals, however, have not been adjusted for vessels that are being retired or taken out of service.)
"Are the rivers big enough to accommodate all those vessels? I would say yes, they are," asserted Helge Grammerstorf, president of IG River Cruise, which has 21 members, including Viking, Ama and Grand Circle Cruise Line.
To put the number of river cruise vessels plying European waterways into perspective, Grammerstorf noted that the same rivers accommodate some 10,000 cargo vessels, meaning that river cruise ships account for but a small fraction of the total traffic along the rivers.
So, when it comes to questions about how sustainable the growth in the river cruise market is, Grammerstorf said, "The rivers themselves are not the problem. Where we will have some room for improvement is the jetties. ... We will need more spaces for the ships to be docked."
Grammerstorf's analysis was echoed by the river cruise lines, which are alert to the fact that if they want to continue to grow their European fleets, they are going to need space to park all these new vessels when they arrive in a town, no matter how big or small, and in a way that is comfortable for everyone. Room to dock
For the most part, all the river cruise lines sail much the same itineraries throughout Europe, which means they make many of the same stops along the way. The challenge is finding and creating enough docking space for the larger numbers of vessels they are introducing.
"Docking port infrastructure is limited," said Anna Wolfsteiner, senior vice president of international sales and distribution at Scenic Tours, which owns the Scenic Cruises line. "It only takes 14 months to build a ship, but it can take up to four years to build a dock."
The chief docking issue is avoiding rafting, the practice of docking ships side by side, which forces passengers to walk through -- or in some cases, up and over -- other ships to embark and disembark. All the lines want rafting minimized.
And since one allure of river cruising is the vessels' ability to pull in relatively close to the heart of a city, the lines want to make sure the docks are built close to city centers.
There is already a fair amount of rafting taking place in Europe; it is not uncommon to see vessels docked two or three ships deep at any given port.
But this is also an issue that is pretty much out of the river cruise lines' hands. It's up to the individual municipalities whether and how much they want to invest in their riverfront docks. River cruise lines are left hoping that individual municipalities understand how much their port investments can benefit the cities.
"Some of the local communities are very focused on bringing new ships into their town, and others say, 'We don't want it,'" Wolfsteiner said.
Christian Eberle of the tourist information bureau for Vilshofen, Germany, wrote in an email: "There are more and more ships on the Danube River, but there are not more landing places," which he said will be a problem in the future as more ships come on line.
Still, for the most part, "there has been considerable development within the European ports in terms of upgrading ports," said Rudi Schreiner, president of Ama Waterways. In fact, his company has developed an intimate partnership with Vilshofen, with Ama reserving docking space and collaborating on special events such as festivals and christenings.
Many of the cities "like the ships coming in, they like those people coming to town shopping, and many of them are developing new docking areas," he said.
Indeed, each of the river cruise lines has worked individually to forge those relationships and secure proprietary docking space wherever possible.
According to Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, it's up to the river cruise lines to work with the local communities to ensure solutions that suit all parties.
"Obviously, locals are going to be motivated if they see benefits for their community," Clark said. "That is an area that we will [continue to] work on: finding ways that we can have river cruise passengers spending money and helping the local economy." Local impact
As river cruising continues to boom, "it's almost like the big cruise ships' issues are now moving toward the smaller rivers," Wolfsteiner said, alluding to space-control issues.
River cruise ships are much smaller than their ocean-going counterparts; five river cruise ships docked in a single port at the same time would generate no more than 1,000 passengers in that town, compared with the thousands of passengers that debark a single ocean vessel. But many of the towns in which they stop are also much smaller than ocean cruise ports.
Take, for example, Melk, a German town of just over 5,000 people on the Danube River. Known for its Melk Abbey, it is a popular stop on Danube cruises. But in this case, if five river cruise ships dock in the town simultaneously, they will unload one passenger for every five locals.
For that reason, river cruise lines have recently begun staggering their itineraries to ensure that they don't all descend on the same towns at the same time.
For example, they noted that in the past, they all used to offer only Sunday departures for their itineraries. Now, all the lines have added midweek departures, and some, like Avalon, have also varied itinerary lengths to better ensure more exclusivity while docked in a city.
The river cruise lines are also all looking into ways to better diversify and differentiate their products by increasing the variety and timing of land excursions.
"There are many options that are still not being [taken advantage of] to do different things," Grammerstorf said.
But he also noted that the towns can help in that regard. "Don't sell us the wine-tasting, because everyone does that." Instead, he said "you can offer horse riding, or bicycle riding to the vineyard. ... Turn it around a little bit."
Schreiner said the river lines are constantly looking for unique and exclusive experiences because they are a crucial part of the business.
"We always look to be kind of alone on an itinerary," Schreiner said. "Planning and avoiding crowds will always be an issue. You don't want to have five ships in a small town that can only provide five guides. These are issues you need to manage."
For the most part, it seems that the unprecedented buzz and growth in the European river cruise market is viewed as a positive by the villages, towns, cities and countries that are benefiting from the influx of visitors.
"River tourism/river cruising is very important for France," said Anne-Laure Tuncer, USA director for Atout France, the French tourism development agency.
France welcomed some 180,000 river cruise passengers in 2011, according to Atout France, and it is continuing to see that number grow.
"For the middle-sized waterways, the risk of over-frequentation by large numbers of river boats is nearly [nonexistent] at the moment," Tuncer wrote in an email.
She said that in an effort to court the river cruise industry, French towns have pushed to develop their infrastructure with such projects as reopening certain neglected navigable waterways; creating cycling paths alongside rivers and canals such as in Burgundy and along the Loire River; and redeveloping ports and parks alongside the rivers to better accommodate river cruise ships and their passengers.
Those efforts appear to be working, as a growing number of river cruise lines have expanded their product into the country. Traditionally, the main river cruise routes have been along the Main, Rhine and Danube rivers flowing through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and down into Romania.
But in an effort to introduce additional itineraries, river cruise lines have been heading to places like the Rhone and Saone rivers in France and the Douro in Portugal. Uniworld even introduced an itinerary on Italy's Po River this year, opening up new areas and opportunities both for the river cruise companies and the destinations. Sustainable growth
As long as demand remains robust, the supply of river cruise ships will continue to grow to meet it.
But one thing the river cruise lines and the destinations are starting to discuss with more urgency is ensuring that the growth in river cruising as it continues forward is carried out responsibly and sustainably.
"As we grow, it's going to be vital that we do organize," Avalon's Clark said. He added that the industry needs a proper forum for discussing issues that affect the river cruise industry and addressing them: everything from environmental impact to food sourcing.
"It's going to happen," he said. "I think that's important for the long term."
In the meantime, Ama's Schreiner said that there is plenty of oversight in Europe to keep the industry in check.
"Europe is extremely strict in rules and regulations, much stricter than the U.S.," Schreiner said. "Especially countries like France, Austria. They come onboard, they check the employees -- are they legal employees? They check the kitchen, the food environment. ... They check your exhaust system."
Whatever the merits of an industrywide forum, Schreiner said that European government oversight ensures that everything happening on the rivers is being closely monitored. Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.