With Viking River Cruises' announcement last week that it plans to build eight new ships in the next three years, and Avalon Waterways' and Uniworld River Cruises' introduction of new balcony innovations and pools on their latest ships, the river cruise shipbuilding race is back on.

The river cruise industry's growth curve was flattened a bit by the recession, but demand is picking up considerably, and according to the major river cruise players, there's still room for more ships on Europe's waterways.

"River cruising is still in its infancy and has tremendous growth potential," Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, said in a statement last week. "Our fleet plans will benefit the industry as a whole by increasing supply in a marketplace in which demand is exceeding available inventory."

Viking is running at about a 97% load factor for 2010, according to Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing.

Viking plans to spend $250 million to build eight ships and do two refurbishments over the next three years. The eight new vessels will boost Viking's fleet to 26, a capacity increase of more than 40%.

All eight are for the European market.

The first, the 189-passenger Viking Prestige, will launch in 2011 as a sister ship to the Viking Legend, which launched last fall with some of the same ecofriendly features, such as a hybrid propulsion system. It will also feature French balconies on the top two decks. The Prestige will offer Viking's eight-night Romantic Danube itinerary, from Budapest to Nuremberg, Germany.

The Prestige will be built by the Neptun Shipyard in Rostock, Germany, part of the Meyer Neptun Group.

Viking plans to add three more vessels in Europe in 2012 and four in 2013.

In addition to the new ships, Viking plans on completely refurbishing the Viking Pakhomov in Russia, which will undergo a bow-to-stern renovation like those of its sister ships, the Viking Surkov and Viking Kirov, relaunched in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

In Europe, the Viking Schumann, a ship purpose-built for the Elbe River with a shallow draft, will receive bow-to-stern refurbishments to match those of sister ship Viking Fontane. For instance, the upper deck will be reconfigured to add eight 180-square-foot staterooms.

Avalon, Uniworld innovate

Avalon Waterways and Uniworld River Cruises, meanwhile, are focusing on innovations in ship design to help differentiate their products.

The river cruise industry has "reached a tipping point," said Scott Nisbet, CEO of the Globus Family of Brands, which recently unveiled plans for a new, 162-passenger ship, the Avalon Panorama. It will feature 64 newly designed, open-air suites on the top two decks.

The ship will launch in May 2011. According to Patrick Clark, managing director at Avalon, due to contractual obligations Avalon does not disclose individual prices for its ships. But he added that the market rate for constructing a 443-foot river cruise ship is between $21.5 million and $29 million.

The Panorama will have 200-square-foot suites with a seating area adjacent to an 11-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, sliding panoramic window. The new configuration of the staterooms also reorients the beds to face toward the windows.

"The whole suite becomes an open-air balcony," Clark said, adding that it was a "new look at how the space on the ships is used."

Avalon employed a new interior design team, and the result will be marble bathrooms, new Comfort Collection by Avalon bedding (passengers will be able to choose between firm or soft pillows) and a love-seat-enhanced sitting area in the suites.

Another new feature on the Panorama will be a sky deck pool, which will fit six people comfortably. River cruise ships in Europe have toyed with hot tubs but few have pools, as the weather in Europe puts their usability in question.

The Panorama will cruise Avalon's 14-night Magnificent Europe route from Amsterdam to Budapest for most of 2011.

At the end of this year Avalon will be retiring its leases on the 176-passenger Avalon Artistry, built in 2004, and the 174-passenger Avalon Poetry, built in 2005. They will return to the German company Premicon.

"After four years averaging capacity increases of 25%, we [will] have a brief hiatus in 2011," Clark said. "There will be five fewer departures in 2011 and 4% fewer berths offered." But in 2011, Avalon will have more seven-night sailings and fewer 14-night sailings, "so frequency increases."

The unveiling of Avalon's Panorama comes one month after Uniworld released plans for its new 146-passenger River Antoinette, which will launch in March on the Rhine River, and will also feature a swimming pool and glass-enclosed balconies.

Additionally, the Antoinette will have a 20-by-13-foot swimming pool. It will be the largest ship in Uniworld's fleet, at 443 feet in length. Uniworld President Guy Young did not say how much Uniworld was investing in the vessel, but did say it would be the company's most expensive new ship to date.

This report appeared in the May 31 issue of Travel Weekly.

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